Category Archives: ethnomusicology

Ignoring Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a rule, musical sounds are more clearly distinguished from non-musical sounds (the sounds of “reality”) than visual arts are distinguished from the shapes and colors of the visible world. What makes a photograph, abstract painting, or found object distinct from non-art is more difficult to pinpoint than what makes music sound like music. Satirist Ambrose Bierce addressed this in The Devil’s Dictionary, which defines painting as “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” The viewing venue, in other words, plays a central role in the creation and perception of visual arts. (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is an extreme example.) Contrastingly, music is invisible, and thus cannot be confused with visible forms; it has no direct analog in the physical world.

Music is a culturally defined sonic phenomenon that, while impossible to define universally, is immediately recognized when heard in its cultural setting. Historically in the West, this has included a division between “pure” tones and “disordered” or “unwanted” sounds, generally called “noise.” Physics seems to support this bifurcation. While the various sound waves produced by music can be isolated into individual frequencies, with some being more dominant than others, noise contains jumbled frequencies of sound without a dominant frequency. However, ambiguity lurks beneath this observation. Despite Western music’s self-perception of “noiselessness,” such sounds do exist within the organized matrix of frequencies.

Performers, scholars, and aficionados have long understood Western music (esp. concert music) as purified of noise. This assumption surfaces in descriptions of non-European musics. As Dena J. Epstein chronicles in her article “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History,” European travelers and missionaries regularly described the timbres of African vocals and instruments as “crude,” “wild,” “peculiar,” strange,” “weird,” or “noise.” Contemporary ethnomusicologists credit “ethnic” musics for retaining noisy elements, and eschewing—or never developing—the Western affinity for “pure” tones. The African mbira, or thumb piano, is a favorite example. Bottle caps and snail shells are attached to the soundboard and resonator, creating a buzz that muddies the otherwise focused timbre of the plucked idiophone. Efforts to reintroduce “noisiness” into Western music, notably with fuzz and overdrive guitar distortion, is sometimes heard as an aspirational return to naturalistic sound, albeit through electronic means.

All of this overlooks the presence of noise in even the most cleaned-up Western musical forms. The scraping of the bow against a violin string; the clacking of the keys on a clarinet; the sliding on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. According to filmmaker and composer Michel Chion, author of Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, the Western listener tends to “scotomize,” or mentally delete, these sounds. Moreover, studio recordings tend to minimize or mute out such idiosyncrasies. “On the other hand,” writes Chion, “recordings of so-called traditional musics are often made by and for people who find something charming about such noises, and such documentations strive to preserve them and even to emphasize them in the recording process.”

Chion’s compositional medium, musique concrète, places all sorts of sounds into a musically organized framework. Compositions consist of multifarious field recordings, which are modified by altering pitch and intensity, extending or cutting off, adding echo effects, playing backwards, and so on. [Listen to Chion’s Requiem]. The finished piece is an artistic unity that challenges standard ideas about music. It can also train us to hear assembled noises as musical, and to listen for noise elements in conventional music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Musical (Nearly) Universals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human universals refer to aspects of culture, language, behavior, and psyche found in historically and geographically distributed human populations. These include, but are by no means limited to, tools and tool-making, grammar and syntax, myths and proverbs, social groups and kinship systems, mores and moral codes, facial recognition and psychological defenses, and gestures and emotional displays. Some of these are universals of classification, as opposed to universals of content: they share common patterns and purposes, but not necessarily individual elements.  Myths and languages, for example, take on many different forms and meanings, but their presence in widely varied societies make them universal categories.

Music is universal in this classificational sense. While a universally applicable definition of music seems impossible, no human society, past or present, has been without some type of culturally intelligible musical expression. Anthropologists and aestheticians highlight dissimilarities in styles and sounds, and modern music-makers push barriers beyond what is normatively called “music.” Yet within the overwhelming variety and complexity reside ubiquitous acoustic cues.

Psychological studies have uncovered an array of associations between general musical sounds (i.e., not tied to a specific genre or music-culture) and human responses. Loud music, for instance, tends to increase psychological arousal. Lower pitches are perceived as negative or aggressive, whereas higher pitches are heard as positive or submissive. Vibrato tends to evoke strong emotionality, while sudden or unexpected sounds tend to startle. Auditors synchronize body movements with music’s temporal organization. Cuteness is conveyed through certain resonant cavities (roughly 20 milliliters in volume), such as ocarinas and music boxes, which apparently trigger nurturing behaviors associated with infant vocalizations. Other cues suggest a link between vocal tendencies and musical expression, such as intensified speech (angry, fearful, happy, etc.) with faster tempi.

As this partial list suggests, similar responses to similar characteristics persist across the human experience, even as the music itself can differ dramatically. This seems to go against the “incommensurability thesis,” which posits that because objects, concepts, and behaviors have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Without denying music’s irreducible diversity, associations appear to cut through culturally specific signatures. Underlying the wide range of rhythms, tonalities, modalities, and timbres are basic and essentially predicable responses.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Whence Came the Musical Bow?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A note of caution should be added to any discussion of musical origins. Musical history predates recorded history. Practice comes long before theory. Current forms mask a gradual evolutionary process. Using the present to reconstruct the past is as tempting as it unreliable. As ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann related, “Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from ethnological studies is that argument based on plausibility can be dangerous.”

Wachsmann’s warning came in a 1962 article, “The Earliest Musical Instruments.” A pioneer in the study of African music, he learned firsthand the fallibility of “practical” assumptions. These include hunches concerning the musical bow, one of the oldest known instruments. “What for instance could be more plausible than that the shooting bow and the manipulation of its string led to discoveries in the sphere of harmony?” British archaeologist Henry Balfour proposed such a timeline in his 1899 treatise, The Natural History of the Musical Bow: the shooting bow was emancipated from hunting and warfare to become a musical instrument, in the process accumulating modifications.

A hunter happening upon a bow’s musical qualities is not the only possibility, nor is it the most likely. Musicologist Curt Sachs, writing twenty years before Wachsmann, declared the idea “plausible but wrong, like many plausible explanations” (The History of Musical Instruments, 1940). According to Sachs, the false assumption hinged on two biases: the practical (hunting) always precedes the aesthetic (music), and similar forms necessarily point to a shared source. He asserted that the oldest musical bows were ten-feet long, and therefore useless for shooting. Other early designs were idiochordic, with the bow and string cut from the same piece of cane and still attached at either end—an equally ineffective hunting tool. Moreover, to make a clearly audible sound, the bow needs a resonator, usually a hollowed-out gourd or the player’s mouth. This effect does not come about naturally by simply shooting an arrow.

The musical bow’s cultural meanings are similarly mixed. A cave painting at Trois Frères, dating to about 13,000 B.C.E., apparently shows a bison-man playing a hunting bow, and Plutarch described Scythians playing music on their hunting bows. Yet, Wachsmann considered the cave painting too ambiguous to be conclusive, and cautioned that a hunter plucking his bow tells us nothing about which came first. Complicating the matter, Sachs noted several customs unrelated to war or the hunt: “among many tribes only women play [the bow]; in Rhodesia it is the instrument played at girls’ initiations; and the Washambala in eastern Africa believe that a man cannot get a wife if a string of the musical bow breaks while he is making it.”

Absent a time machine, it is impossible to know for certain if the musical bow derived from the hunting bow, the hunting bow came from the musical bow, or the two emerged independently. When an instrument’s lifespan extends so far into the unrecorded past, it is perhaps unwise to disregard any plausible theory. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to refute a simple, mono-directional development from hunting to music. Resemblances between the modern-day weapon and instrument could reflect later interactions, rather than a conjoined evolution. After all, just because we can set up pots and pans in a drum set configuration does not mean the cookware gave rise to percussion instruments, or vice versa.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Different Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs.” Thus begins Horace Miner’s satirical 1956 essay, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which details a culture rife with magic, superstitions, and exotic routines. Their foundational belief is that the human body is ugly and prone to disease. Extreme measures are taken to ameliorate this natural state. Bathing and excretory acts are performed in household shrines adorned with hanging chests filled with elixirs and charms. Men scrape and lacerate the surface of their faces with sharp instruments. Teeth are ritualistically cleansed with a bundle of hog hairs lathered with magical powders. Bewitched people hire witch-doctors to exorcise demons from their heads.

At some point, the reader realizes that Nacerima is American spelled backwards. The shrine is a bathroom, the hanging chest is a medicine cabinet, the face-scraping is a shave, the mouth-cleaner is a toothbrush, the witch-doctor is a therapist. Miner’s subtle wit sensitizes us to our own ethnocentricity. “Primitiveness” is less a matter of the practices themselves than our assumptions about them. Outsider interpretations often conflict with insider understandings.

The wider our view of humanity becomes, the more we recognize its sundry shapes and forms. Music was once widely conceived as a “universal language” in the literal sense: the same sounds touch the same emotions and mean the same things the world over. Nineteenth-century Euro-American musicologists perpetuated this assumption, even as fieldwork mounted showing drastic variations between social structures, spoken languages, dress, food, and belief systems of far-flung cultures.

Berthold Seemann, a German botanist, was among the first to criticize this ignorant stance. His remarks, delivered at the 1870 meeting of the Anthropological Society of London, are noteworthy both for their clarity and their honesty. He doubted whether Western European nations, connected by frequent cultural exchange, possessed music that could be interpreted the same way across borders. As his observation extended eastward, conventional associations were turned on their head: songs of joy were sung in modes closely resembling the minor. Looking further east, music became increasingly less intelligible. With considerable self-awareness, he confessed that the songs of “the great Mongolian races,” while surely pleasant for them, were “positively painful” to his ears.

Ethnomusicology, the study of music in cultural context, traces its lineage to Seemann and other late-nineteenth-century mold-breakers. As ethnomusicology has evolved, so has its nomenclature. Distinctions between primitive and advanced, esoteric and exoteric have fallen out of favor. Researchers strive to appreciate music on its own terms, and rely upon insider knowledge. Yet, as much as the scholar tries to step back, the discipline—like all others—requires theory, method, and interpretation. As such, the Nacirema remains a cautionary tale.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Exodus (Book Review)

Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas, edited by Ruth F. Davis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 220 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

If music is the “Jew” of Jewish studies, as musicologist Edwin Seroussi contends, then Sephardic Jewish music is the “Jew of the Jew” of Jewish studies. Not only is it a marginalized topic, as music generally is, but it also suffers from an Ashkenazi bias, which permeates all of Jewish studies. Ruth F. Davis’s edited anthology, Musical Exodus, strives to fill in the oft-neglected picture. It collects ten research papers on musical subjects related to “Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas,” the title of a 2008 colloquium of the International Council of Traditional Music held at Cambridge University, which forms the basis of the book.

Following an informative introduction by Davis, Dwight F. Reynolds outlines the complex and multifarious cultural, religious, and musical backgrounds that gave rise to Arabo-Andalusian music (music of medieval Muslim Spain, “al-Andalus” in Arabic). Vanessa Paloma Elbaz examines the subtle integration of “feminine” vernacular songs into male-dominated worship services in Tangier, Morocco. Daniel Jütte looks at the role of Jewish musicians and dance instructors as cultural intermediaries between Jews and Christians in Renaissance Italy. Piergabriele Mancuso describes the cultural makeup of the Sabbatini, a group of southeastern Italian Catholic farmers who claimed to be “children of Israel,” encountered Italian Jewry, formally converted to Judaism, and migrated to Israel en masse in 1950. Philip V. Bohlman describes how images of al-Andalus as a model of religious and cultural tolerance became symbolic for Enlightenment Jews in Europe. John Morgan O’Connell connects the exclusion of indigenous Jewish musicians in early Republican Turkey to the ousting of Eastern (Ottoman) aesthetics, and the assertion of Western culture. Jonathan H. Shannon explores the contradictory silence surrounding Jewish musicians in Syria, and the persistence of “Jewish fingers”—a hand gesture in Syrian musical practice developed by Yacoub Ghazala, a Jewish musician whose memory officials have worked to erased. Tony Langlois discusses Jewish commercial musicians in the port city of Oran, Algeria, who performed an eclectic style known as chanson Oranaise between the 1930s and 50s. Carmel Raz considers the secular revival of piyyutim (liturgical poetry with roots in al-Andalus) in modern-day Israel as a means of bridging secular and sacred and Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Edwin Seroussi surveys Hebrew Andalusian poetry unique to Jews of Tripoli, Libya and Djerba, Tunisia. Stephen Blum’s afterword urges further investigation into cultural interactions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in al-Andalus and elsewhere.

Each exploration is richly detailed and defies adequate illustration here. As with any edited volume, some chapters are better presented than others, some fit better within the overarching subject, and some are of more inherent interest to the reader. (These observations are, of course, subjective.) Nevertheless, the book’s expansive timeframe, dispersed geographies, and widely varied musical traditions paint a composite portrait—by way of case study—of a vibrant and multi-layered area of Jewish music, history, and culture.

From this sundry material emerges four recurring themes of special interest to this reviewer. First is the pervasive myth of Jewish life in al-Andalus as a “golden age.” As with any romanticized period, medieval Spain was not quite as glorious as the romanticists claim. Both Davis and Bohlman trace the myth to Enlightenment Jews in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, who saw al-Andalus as a paradigm of ideals they cherished: equality, religious tolerance, and cross-cultural interaction. Davis writes: “Pitting an idealized Islamic tradition of tolerance against the grim realities of European anti-Semitism, they constructed a ‘historical myth’ of an interfaith utopia under medieval Islamic rule, which they presented as a challenge to Christian Europe and as a strategy to improve their own position” (p. xv). The myth was later taken up by Arab academics and journalists, who blamed Zionism for turning Arabs against Jews. Jewish historians countered with earlier evidence of intolerance and persecution in Arab lands and the founding books of Islam. Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries used the “counter-myth” of persecution to align themselves with downtrodden Ashkenazi Jews, and “claim an equal share of the Zionist dream” (p. xvi). Naturally, each myth and counter-myth exhibits degrees of cherry-picking for political purposes.

A second theme is oral transmission. According to Reynolds, “Because musical notation was not in use in Muslim Spain, we possess a wide variety of historical sources about medieval Andalusian music but not the music itself….On the other hand, the large number of living musical traditions that claim some sort of descent from the music of medieval Muslim Spain does allow us—with great care and very judiciously—to navigate at times back and forth between medieval historical documents and modern living traditions and to come to an approximate understanding of the basic structures of medieval Arabo-Andalusian music” (pp. 3-4). This helps to explain both the diversity and continuity within and between various idioms expressive of an “Arab style.” With reliance on generational transfer rather than written notation, these traditions could develop and flourish in a variety of directions without losing a fundamental link to the past.

The third area is the role of poetry. In the classical conception, Arab music was not considered an independent art form, but a vehicle for sung poetry. Thus, melodic construction was largely dictated by the rhythms, meters, and forms of Arabic poetry (essentially a form of logogeneic, or word-born, music). Because of this more or less stable linguistic foundation, the “Arab style” could accept expanding influences from Byzantine, Persian, African, and other sources without losing its aesthetic signatures.

Fourth, and most central, is hybridity. Again quoting Reynolds: “Over a period of nine centuries, from 711 to 1610, there is evidence of professional musicians from a variety of different ethnic, religious, and regional origins performing diverse musical traditions before patrons and audiences of diverse backgrounds. There is also good evidence for understanding the music itself (and not just the music makers) as a very cosmopolitan tradition that incorporated influences from multiple sources and developed innovative new forms by combining and hybridizing traditions” (pp. 21-22). Such hybridity remained a feature of the Sephardic diaspora. For example, Jewish performers of chanson Oranaise, mentioned above, combined medieval Andalusian repertoire and French chanson, a popular genre of music halls and cabarets. Beyond music, hybridity is a characteristic of Sephardic languages, such as the Moroccan Judeo-Spanish vernacular of Haketía, which combines Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Hebrew, as well as performance contexts, such as the piyyut revival in Israel, which mixes secular and sacred, East and West.

These themes and the chapters that elucidate them remind us not only of the substantial musical contributions of al-Andalus and its Jewish diasporas, but also of the complex and nearly indefinable nature of Jewish music. More broadly, they support the case for answering questions of “Jewishness”—musical and otherwise—in the plural: Jewish identities, Jewish traditions, Jewish styles, Jewish diasporas, Judaisms. As Ruth Rubin observed decades ago, the music of the Jews is “as diverse and variegated as the Jews themselves” (A Treasury of Jewish Folksong, 1950).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Original Musicology

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musikwissenschaft, the historical study of European art music, began in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach (1802) set the tone for the field, which focuses on musical rules, periods, pieces, and personalities. Two more branches of musicology were added during the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, which examines socio-cultural dimensions of global musics, and systematic musicology, which engages the sciences and humanities in investigating musical phenomena.

The three sub-disciplines of musicology have matured and diversified over the decades. Systematic musicology has an especially modern feel, with its interest in acoustics, neuroscience, psychology, and social theory. Guido Adler laid the groundwork for this interdisciplinary approach with his 1885 essay, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (“Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”), which divides musicology into historical questions about the development of musical conventions and the succession of “great” composers, and systematic questions about the nature of music and human responses to it.

Today, systematic musicology is itself divided into two areas: empirical/scientific and social/cultural. Its tools of computation and theories of analysis are decidedly twenty-first century, integrating lab studies, computer data, semiotics, and the like. However, the questions it pursues are much older than even Adler’s seminal essay.

Centuries before receiving its proper name, thinkers were systematically assessing music in human life. Around the third century, Greek theorist Aristides Quintilianus was already categorizing musical studies into theoretical/speculative (systematic) and practical/didactic (historical). Franchinus Gaffurius (fifteenth century) examined how musical sounds achieve specific ends. Marin Mersenne (seventeenth century) scrutinized acoustics and the speed of sound. As a rule, European scholars prior to the nineteenth century were preoccupied with the big picture. And, even as music history became the dominant focal point, scholars continued to ponder the larger cognitive and spiritual aspects (see my edited collections, The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801-1918 and Music, Theology and Worship: Selected Writings, 1841-1896).

Systematic musicology has benefited from the growing sophistication of the diverse disciplines it draws upon. Yet, underneath its contemporary garb are questions that have attracted thinkers throughout the ages: What is music, how does music work, why does music move us? Although the sub-field is relatively new, its questions long predate interest in historical periods and cultural practices. For this reason, it can be called the original musicology.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Is All Music Ethnic?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“If all music is ethnic music, then the ethnicity of programmed music is capitalism.” This provocative statement appears in Jonathan Sterne’s widely cited study of piped-in music at the Mall of America (Bloomington, Minnesota). According to Sterne, the music of that commercial space is the soundtrack of a loose community of shoppers engaged in a culturally specific ritual of browsing and buying—an activity that tacitly reaffirms the principals of capitalism.

Sterne’s observations are indebted to David P. McAllester, a founder of ethnomusicology who coined the phrase “all music is ethnic music” in his introspective essay, “The Astonished Ethno-Muse.” McAllester was drawn to the historically rich and meaning-laden ceremonial music of the Navajo Nation. He later realized that his focus on particularistic practices distracted him from the Navajos’ broader penchant for country and western music. He came to appreciate record stores and radio stations as important research locales, and to see ethnomusicological potential in all socio-musical contexts: “We are so captivated by the panpipes in the hawthorns that we hardly hear the music on the TV show in the living room.”

Sterne’s paper was published almost twenty years after McAllester’s (1997 and 1979 respectively), and McAllester’s epiphany came two decades after the field of ethnomusicology was formally established. Thus, in the space of roughly forty years, the discipline had grown from a narrow interest in “exotic” sounds of native peoples to include subcultures based on a range of social glues: work, class, peer interests, recreational experiences, etc. Navajo ceremonies and holiday shopping were placed side by side without any irony or cynicism.

Mature ethnomusicology, as it is sometimes called, has retrieved the core meaning of “ethnos” as a social entity. The term dates to the writings of Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.E.), who defined Greek identity as kinship (homaimon: “of the same blood”), language (homoglosson: “speaking the same language”), and customs (homotropon: “of the same habits”). To be sure, this tripartite classification does not apply to all national ethnicities, let alone other groups of people (the blood requirement is particularly problematic). But the elements of language and customs remain central to ethnicities of all types and stripes.

Language here is not just verbal and written communication, but also a complex of sounds (including musical), gestures, movements, shapes, symbols, colors, and attire. Likewise, customs are not just formal rituals, holiday observances, or heritage recipes, but also habits and informal activities common to a population (fast food, morning commutes, picnics, loitering, etc.). Hence, the ethnicity of shopping mall muzak, Navajo country radio, and music on American television. In short, because humans exist in groups and human music is fundamentally social, all music is ethnic music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.