April 7th, 2008

Nella Mia Lingua

Last week I gave a guest lecture in a “Global Pop” class at MIT. The professor, Patricia Tang, asked me to come in and do my thing where I show how various genres cohere depending on tempo and rhythmic pattern. It’s a shtick I’ve had going for years, using Ableton (or, previously, FruityLoops) to make hip-hop morph into dancehall into reggaeton into soca into techno and so on. At any rate, the presentation went fine and the students seemed to enjoy it.

As we were leaving, however, one of Patty’s colleagues came into the room. Patty introduced us and mentioned that we had just been “making beats” in her class. At which point, the professor pretty much turned up her nose (perhaps partly in jest) and said something which to the best of my memory went like, “Beats? Is that what I would call — in my language — rhythmic ostinati?”

At first, far too familiar with such a situation, I half-smiled at the joke and said “yes.” But then, thinking better, I said “sì,” since she seemed to be implying that her language was Italian or something.

She looked perplexed. We left the room.

For the last week or so the episode has been nagging me. I now wish that I had originally only replied in Italian (if only I were fluent in Italian). Or asked her what the hell a non-rhythmic ostinato might sound like.

Ah, Eurocentrists. They would be more amusing if they had less power.


  • 1. Lynne d Johnson  |  April 7th, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    You see, this is exactly why I wanted you on that panel we’re doing at EMP. We’ve got to work together somehow, at some point in time.

  • 2. Caro  |  April 8th, 2008 at 8:21 am

    I say we kill all the tenured academics. ;-)

  • 3. Raffa  |  April 8th, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Hey wayne!! Here’s a new present for you. Have you ever seen Rambo singing cumbia?? Hope you dind’t see it before:


  • 4. wayneandwax  |  April 8th, 2008 at 9:41 am

    That video is awesome, Raffa. Thanks! Totally en mi idioma!

    Caro, that would definitely make some well-needed room.

    And thanks for the kinds words, Lynne. (Tho I’m not quite clear on how this post convinces you I’d be good on a panel — because I could curse the audience in fake Italian perhaps?) I really wish I could have joined y’all in Seattle this weekend. Scheduling conflicts suck. Hope it goes well; do keep me posted on the blackweb2.0 project. I’ve subscribed to the blog, so I’ll be keeping tabs. Let’s keep the convo going.

  • 5. Birdseed  |  April 8th, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Hey I’m European and I despair at this stuff as well – can’t they be called Western Art Music-centric or something?

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  April 8th, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Yeah, it’s not the focus on Europe so much as the elitism that I’m getting at (though the unmarked provincialism is pretty annoying). I do prefer the term “European Art Music” to describe the rather narrow subject matter of (the seemingly broad discipline of) musicology. (In general, I resist using Western, as it just sets up another big, false dichotomy.)

    In contrast, ethnomusicologists are also concerned with (the cultural/social contexts and meanings of) music composed for/by European elites between 1600-1900; we’re also, however, interested in every other area and era of musical practice. Charles Seeger was right: that should be the subject matter of a comprehensive musicology.

  • 7. Birdseed  |  April 9th, 2008 at 3:01 am

    That’s interesting – do you have any ethnomusicological studies to recommend on the western* art music of that time? ‘Cause part of what annoys me about our two subjects has been the seeming continuum where the more “serious” the music is the more musicological it gets, and the more “ethnic” the music is the more ethnomusicological it gets. I think both are problematic, and I think I (unconsciously) picked musicology after being particularly annoyed at a BBC documentary that spent two hours on the history of reggae without once mentioning the actual musical content, only the social context.

    *it’s their term, not mine. Still, I guess I use it too – in the core-periphery Marxist sense.

  • 8. Kariann  |  April 9th, 2008 at 9:19 am

    So much to say, so many ways to kill my career.

  • 9. jahone  |  April 9th, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    isn’t the word eurocentric itself a eurocentric?
    isn’t talking about elitism elitist if it is done at an elite school?

  • 10. wayneandwax  |  April 9th, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    This isn’t an elite school, Jahone. It’s a blog. And I still don’t follow your reasoning.

    I don’t see what makes “Eurocentric” a Eurocentric concept. It’s an anti-Eurocentric concept. Duh. But if you mean that to conjur the specter is to implicitly re-center, well then, ok. Of course, where’s that leave us when we want to criticize Eurocentrism, or any ethnocentrism? Or maybe you’re not into criticizing ethnocentrism. If so, I’m not sure why you’re into my blog. (By the way, I only know European languages, so I guess by your logic that leaves me in a pretty “Eurocentric” bind.)

    Anyhoo, I hear you Kariann. Sometimes I get irked enough to feel, let’s say, rather cavalier about the whole biz. It’s amazing what goes unspoken in so many music departments.

    And Birdseed, as you may know, several times the Society for Ethnomusicology has debated the whole ‘ethno-‘ prefix. Suffice it to say that we’ve decided to hold on to it as a marker of the historical moment in which the field was founded — as well as to make an explicit link to ethnology / ethnography.

    Too often people just think of ethnomusicology as the study of “ethnic” music. (I’ve definitely been told, for instance, while researching techno at clubs and identifying myself as an ethnomusicologist, that I should come back on salsa night, when they’re playing more “ethnic” music.) But it’s not “ethnic-musicology,” it’s ethno-musicology (though we dropped the hyphen a while back). As for studying “the music itself,” we don’t really believe — as a matter of dogma — that any such thing exists, but that doesn’t mean that ethnomusicologists don’t talk about pitches and such. Sure we do. Some more than others. Some more than is necessary, in my estimation. But few as much as musicologists and music theorists.

    There aren’t (yet) too many ethnomusicological works on European art music. (And, fwiw, I still try to avoid using “Western” — whether or not Eurocentric elitists, or critics, do — as I think it upholds a weird way of seeing the world.) For one, it’s a little tricky to do fieldwork in, say, nineteenth-century Austria at this point, though archival research can get one a ways (thank g0d Greenblatt for New Historicism — and New Musicology). A couple notable studies in this vein, though — i.e., looking at Euro art music in (contemporary) social and cultural context — are Henry Kingsbury’s Music, Talent, and Performance, Christopher Small’s Musicking, of course, and — esp apropos for this conversation — Bruno Nettl’s Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music.

  • 11. Birdseed  |  April 10th, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Actually, now that you put it that way “A History of Eurocentric Elite Music” would be a much better title for our textbook. :)

  • 12. Birdseed  |  April 10th, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Oh, and thanks for all the tips on books. I’ll definitely look them up. The rest of what you say is fairly interesting too – I guess I come from a country where ethnomusicology is called “music ethnology” and is done mainly in ethnology/anthropology departments, but that’s not necessarily true everywhere.

  • 13. wayneandwax  |  April 10th, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Ah, yes, and let’s not forget the field’s German forbear, vergleichende musikwissenschaft. SEM is a pretty American invention in its way, despite longstanding (and increasing?) participation from scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts all over the world. Initially, the field brought together anthropologists who worked on music and musicologists interested in (mostly “non-Western”) culture, though these days, at least in the US, most ethnomusicologists reside in music departments, usually as a distinct minority among those who study Eurocentric Elite Music, as you put it — a coinage I may have to adopt.

  • 14. soda  |  April 10th, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    So, tell me what would have been the best way for that woman (I wasn’t sure if she’s a teacher and an Italian. Is she?) to respond?

  • 15. wayneandwax  |  April 10th, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    heh. she’s not italian. she’s a professor of music who uses italian words because many of her favorite composers and scholars use italian words. (at least, that’s my best guess. or most generous interpretation.) i don’t find italian very useful in talking about hip-hop, kabeesh?

    any number of responses would have been dandy. welcome even. just nothing condescending, si vous plait.

    but perhaps this is so much water cooler talk to some.

  • 16. Kiddid  |  April 11th, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    It seems pretty obvious to me why this circumstance would be irritating. As I read it, the offending gesture stemmed from this professors assertion of class. She was marking your activity and interests (beatmaking) as lower-class/low-brow by using terms such as “ostinati”, which she probably thought you wouldn’t understand, and was placing her interests and knowledge level above yours. Not only is what she said obviously classist but it could also be read as carrying a hint of racism as well…

  • 17. wayneandwax  |  April 11th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Yes. Spot on reading, Kiddid.

  • 18. boima  |  April 17th, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    And I think that Kiddid is exactly right. The interesting thing to me, and I don’t know if you could see this Wayne, but she looked African American to me. Light skinned and “refined” in a very old school sense, but I’m sure my physical appearance to her was kind of threatening and she made all kinds of assumptions, probably wondering how someone who looked like me (and looked like her) ended up in that room. I don’t tend to dress up if you know what I mean. And then when you said make beats, I’m sure that reinforced her fears of being exposed if she would have understood what you said. She reacted like you were talking a different language… “America’s Patois,” a friend of mine said (on NPR! big up Biko!). If MY assumptions are right about her racial/ethnic mix, I can’t be mad at her cause she probably came up at a time, and got to where she is by having to hide any blackness that she might have. If I’m not right then she’s hella f’d up!

  • 19. wayneandwax.com » M&hellip  |  October 21st, 2009 at 10:32 am

    […] course, this is the same music dept that generated this classic(al) interaction. So, we’ll […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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