January 30th, 2013

Music Ontology Mixtape

Ok, it’s more of a playlist, but now that I’ve got your attention…

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Today in my other class, Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), I threw a few limit cases at my students, inviting them to think about where people draw lines between music and non-music and why it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these as we seek to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity — but also the unity — of world musical practice.

One of our readings for this week takes on this project with full steam and inspiring empathy. John Blacking’s “Humanly Organized Sound,” a classic of the literature and the opening salvo in a profound larger work, How Musical Is Man?, seeks to understand what exactly constitutes musical capacity. Concise and provocative, the title of the chapter has become a useful shorthand definition of “music” for me and many others, if while drawing a possibly unnecessary and unfounded species-specific line around the phenomenon — but that’s a central part of the question.

“Humanly organized sound” is a very flat and encompassing way of defining music and its value to people. Among other trenchant points, Blacking wonders why the broadly distributed learned abilities to take part in musical happenings he observes in, say, Venda culture are oddly denied even as they’re exploited in the so-called West: in the US and UK, he notes, one hears on the one hand of exceptional musical geniuses and virtuosi and, on the other, of folks who learn to describe themselves as tone-deaf or left-footed. But at the same time, the near total suffusion of public and private spaces with music in these societies takes for granted — indeed targets — a baseline capacity for perceiving sonic order and interpreting it as music with meaning or message.

Against this background, having endured a little too much talk about who’s “primitive” and who’s made the most “progress,” Blacking minces no words, and his anti-elitist (indeed, anti-elite) politics ring clear:

Does cultural development represent a real advance in human sensitivity and technical ability, or is it chiefly a diversion for elites and a weapon of class exploitation? Must the majority be made “unmusical” so that a few may become more “musical”?

Recalibrating our sense of musicality in this manner demands, Blacking continues, that as good ethnomusicologists (aka, the scholars formerly known as comparative musicologists),

We need to know what sounds and what kinds of behavior different societies have chosen to call “musical”; and until we know more about this we cannot begin to answer the question, “How musical is man?”

Well, we now know a lot more about such matters, though to what extent that knowledge has redirected or reformed the prevailing ideologies of musical talent and value here in the US is another question. The fact that “Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective” remains a requirement of music majors at my present institution is itself a testament to the beachhead ethnomusicology has made and to the work that remains to be done.

At any rate, though this doesn’t directly speak to Blacking’s concerns as outlined above, here’s the first ontologically unstable sound object I played in class —

The description of the video reads as follows:

David Cope used his Experiments in Musical Intelligence program to compose Zodiac, twelve short works for string orchestra in the style of Vivaldi. This is Taurus. The video is also algorithmically created.

One might not fancy the rendition above all that much, if begrudgingly accepting that it resembles Vivaldi. Some might find it too computery to sound “human” — unnatural violin attacks like glimmers in a replicant’s eyes. But few would deny that it was in some sense a piece of music.

Arguably, Cope’s software’s opus is “humanly organized sound” in at least a couple ways: 1) a human organized the thing that organized the sound; and 2) human listeners perform acts of pattern recognition. In another way, of course — ie, having been generated by some lines of code — it is not. There is a degree of non-human input/output that unsettles. But should we care if we can’t pass a musical Turing Test? If human listeners — not to be confused with dolphins — organize the patterns of sound that reach our ears, why not call it music?

Well, by that reasoning, this would be music too:

But since we can’t really ask a hermit thrush or a line of code whether what they’re doing is “music” (at least not without being suspicious of the answer), we would do well to consider examples of patterned “non-musical” sound directly produced by humans.

For instance, this ol’ gem of the ethnomusicological canon:

If you’re not familiar, that’s James Koetting’s 1975 recording of postal workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office. The important gloss here is that although the workers were obviously whistling tunes (in this case a hymn by a Ghanaian composer) and banging out rhythms, the idea that they were making “music” instead of simply doing their job would have, according to Koetting, seemed quite strange to them and their co-workers. “It sounds like music and, of course it is,” writes Koetting,

but the men performing it do not quite think of it that way. These men are working, not putting on a musical show; people pass by the workplace paying little attention to the “music.”

Another example along these lines —

For certain devout Muslims, Koranic recitation (as well as call to prayer) is not to be confused with music. Indeed, for some (though Islam is a wide, wide world), “music” is haram, prohibited, an indulgence that distracts from virtuous worship. That said, a strong investment in sounding practices is more than audible here; it is practically crucial. To refit the Koetting prose above: This man is reciting, not putting on a musical show. But yeah, for many, to quote Koetting directly: “it sounds like music.”

This example led to a brief digression into a sound object about sound objects: a Radiolab segment which takes as its subject the tonal dimensions of spoken languages. The first 4.5 minutes result in host Jad Abumrad entertaining more or less the same question as our class: “What exactly is music, really?”

When speech — or anything else not performed as music per se — somehow, as a suddenly dialectical sound object, becomes music, has it also in some sense, then, passed beyond understanding? Beyond a certain degree of communication? From one metaphorical register to another, more ambiguous one? Is this implication of irreducible multivalence what makes “music” so odious, so haram, to some?

I raise the question of musical communication because it animates the other piece we read today, which will lead me to my final set of examples (though these aren’t about the same sort of ontology exactly). Steven Feld’s “Music, Communication, and Speech about Music” is a dazzling and humbling examination of how rich, complex, and slippery — or in Feld’s words “changeable” and “emergent” — the listening experience almost always is (not to mention the processes of communication it entails).

To illustrate the various, simultaneous, non-hierarchical “interpretive moves” we make as we listen, Feld offers the admittedly charged but usefully provocative “Spangled Banner Minor” by Carla Bley & her band. I’ve been working with this article and this piece for a while now, and let me tell you: it works every time.

Spangled Banner Minor And Other Patriotic Songs by The Carla Bley Band on Grooveshark

Of course, I couldn’t resist pairing Bley’s recording with a more recent example, which you might say inverts the effect, rendering Michael Stipe’s ├╝ber-emo anthem far more shiny-happy than the wildly (and suprisingly?) popular original. I’m talking about “Recovering My Religion” of course, the Melodyne-assisted remix of REM’s 1991 hit which has raised hackles among the hey-kids-get-off-my-CD-tower crowd, but which is, especially for those of us who had the original tune brutally committed to memory by remarkably repeated exposure, a really striking twist of tone and, accordingly, message and meaning.

Major Scaled #2 : REM – “Recovering My Religion” from major scaled on Vimeo.

As fun and interesting as I think these philosophical/ontological questions about music(ness) can be — and as much as I subscribe to Blacking’s and Feld’s commitment to radical, relativist-universalist studies of music as social life — when it comes down to it, I think maybe humanly re-organized sound is what really pushes my buttons. But we’ll save that distinction for another date.

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1 Comment

  • 1. Susan Campos Fonseca  |  April 30th, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Hello! Great stuff, I will include it in the “syllabus” of my classes. Greetings!


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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