"A Commonsense View of All Music": Reflections on Percy Grainger's Contribution to Ethnomusicology and Music Education, by John Blacking

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"A Commonsense View of All Music": Reflections on Percy Grainger's Contribution to Ethnomusicology and Music Education, by John Blacking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. xiii + 201 pp.

This volume emerged from a series of lectures on ethnomusicological topics John Blacking gave as Misha Strassberg Visiting Fellow at the University of Western Australia in May, 1983. Responding to a suggestion by Sir Frank Callaway, Professor and Head of the Department of Music of the University of Western Australia, Blacking conceived his lectures around consonant ideas expressed by Percy Grainger in a series of lectures broadcast in Australia in 1934 and particularly around Grainger's comments about so-called "folk" and "non-Western" music. It is clear, however, that Blacking explored Grainger's work far more comprehensively and found it stimulating. Each of the seven chapters in this newest Blacking book bears a title drawn from Grainger's work, and some substance relating to Grainger's pioneering thinking of more than half a century ago. The Grainger broadcasts are printed in an Appendix, as is an example of Grainger's meticulous attention to detail in musical transcription of folk materials.

To both Blacking and Grainger can be attributed a breadth of vision. For Grainger in the 1910s, breadth meant considering "ordinary people" (composers and performers of folk music) rather than focusing just on elite culture. For Blacking, breadth extends to all human persons. While Grainger focused his thinking on music-makers, Blacking encompasses both music-makers and listeners. The two men share a concern with the relationship of their "constituency" with received culture. In 1915, for example, Grainger made the pioneering assertion that ordinary people are musically inventive and that they invest even inherited traditional musical material with their own personal style. Blacking repeats what he has argued eloquently for some years now—that artistic cognition is a species-specific capability that all human beings possess. Further, ". . . human beings have the capacity both to use [artistic cognition] in a way that was not immediately determined by cultural tradition, and to identify it when they encounter it in the product of some other persons or society—provided that they can think beyond the conventions of their cultural experience" (p. 46). For both thinkers, a credo issues forth: as expressed by Grainger, it rings out "Let all the world hear all the world's music" (the title of Blacking's Chapter 7).

It would be wonderful to think that Blacking's Chapter 1, "'The Complexity of Folk Music': Evolution, Invention and Diffusion in Music," could be the last of many such presentations by many scholars, most of whom are ethnomusicologists. Indeed, Grainger did have to speak out in 1908 and in 1915 against the prevailing idea that a folk music tradition is the product of some amorphous ethnic collective, and against the mistaken notions that music had progressed from simple to complex with folk music inevitably simple. Is it still necessary in 1987, however, to reinforce Grainger's points with another lengthy discussion of concepts of evolution and progress in music history and defensive examples of complex music from non-Western cultures and Western folk cultures? Blacking obviously thinks it is, but I would rather leave it with this single statement from p. 21: "Percy Grainger's emphasis on the complexity of folk music and the potential musicality of ordinary people, and his belief in the value of widely different kinds of music have been upheld by the work of ethnomusicologists."1 If people still hold to those outdated ideas, they do so because they choose to do so or because they are unaware of the refutations which are manifoldly and easily available in the literature.

What I do think needs to be restated even now is this point, which Blacking makes in Chapter 1: "An 'art-object' by itself is neither art nor non-art: it only becomes one or the other because of the attitudes of human beings towards it" (p. 25). While such a statement might lead a music, art, or literary historian to the general subject of art criticism, it leads anthropologist Blacking one step toward an overarching theme: "Art lives in men and women, to be brought out into the open by special processes of interaction" (p. 25).

As I read it, the theme of this book is as follows: "Life is an evolutionary process of becoming, in which individual consciousness is nurtured through collective experience and hence becomes the source of richer cultural forms" (p. 26). To understand this (indeed, to understand any of Blacking's thinking), one should digest pp. 25-26, two short pages where he presents sub-Saharan African ideas to which his research led him and which affected his own thinking profoundly. As he states them:

There are two important premises: first, communion between people is seen not as the result of a unique historical event, in which individual organisms made a rational decision to co-operate in production, but as an essential feature of the biologically inherited capabilities of the species. We are born social. Our species is not human, but human-and-fellow-human. . . . A human being becomes human through other human beings. . . .
The second premise is related to the first: activities which might be described as ritual, aesthetic, or artistic, are seen not merely as part of the superstructure of human social life, but as fundamental to intellectual and social life, and as integral parts of the process of production. . . . The very real condition of individual self-realization is sharing with others, just as a healthy community depends on the creative contribution of its individual members. Individuality in community is as important as a community of individuals.

To demonstrate the point musically, Blacking gives an example of African drum patterns that could easily be played by one musician, but which Africans choose to distribute polyrhythmically among musicians, thereby showing "how social interaction can be organized in such a way that feeling and intellect combine to create both a special social process and a new cultural product" (p. 26).

Imbedded in Chapter 3, titled " 'Irregular Rhythms,' " in honor of Grainger's fascination with the wide occurrence of irregular rhythms in folk music and his attempt to explain how that could be, is a discussion to which Blacking has been leading for several years: his suggestion that music, as well as speech, is a primarily modelling system for human thought, and that the basis for it is biological. Here dance is incorporated, for clearly stated reasons. Going beyond his arguments in How Musical is Man?2 that musical forms are modelled on social life and various features of social systems, Blacking argues here that "Exercise of the artistic process, of which dance and song are the most elementary products because they are contained within the body, is a special kind of exercise of sensory, communicative and co-operative powers that is as fundamental to the making and remaking of human nature as speech. Dance and song can be understood as primary adaptations to environment; with them, mankind can feel towards a new order of things and feel across boundaries, while with speech, decisions are made about boundaries" (p. 60). Creativity, inspiration, genius, unconscious cerebration—whatever it is called—is a movement of the body. Emotions are structured, inner movements of the body that acquire and are given meaning in the contexts of real or imagined social situations (pp. 78-79). "We should therefore be looking not for species-specific abilities for music, as I argued in How Musical is Man?, but for species-specific modes of thought that can be used in processing, structuring, and communicating sensory data. . . ."

Because humans are also by nature social, the exercise of the artistic process (including music and dance) by one human person together with other humans is fundamental to the process of becoming human. The sharing of ideas and feeling (i.e., the sharing of sensory, communicative, and cooperative powers) is fundamental to the process of becoming human, and when inner feelings are publicly shared, intense social interaction is most deeply experienced. Is this not one way of explaining the "universality of music" and the unique power which music has of creating a sense of human community among people who cannot otherwise communicate? (In Chapter Four, " 'The World's Most Lovely Melodies,'" feelings are discussed in the light of the work of behavorists.)

In an interesting and not always logically connected manner in Chapter 4 and also in Chapter 5, Blacking proceeds to the problem of song texts and the distinctions between speech and song. In Chapters 5 and 6 comes the inevitable link in a Blacking work between "politics" and music—here taking Grainger's ideas about "democratic polyphony" and about "the goal of musical progress" as the point of departure. Said Grainger, all human beings have a right to music and the opportunity of artistic expression, and therefore the goal of musical progress must be not so much to create "free music" as to enable free people to be free to make music. Adds Blacking, "The value of the arts in a society depends on how they are defined and used" (p. 105 and 110). "If we want to evaluate the evolutionary status of a society and measure its health and creative potential, perhaps we should look, not to its balance of payments, the wealth of its elite, or its military power, but to the state of its collective life and the ways in which it is using artistic processes to cultivate all its citizens' ownership of the senses and promote their individual freedom, and to develop its power of mind and its social and cultural coherence" (p. 110). Through Chapter 6 and also Chapter 7, concerned with music in a multi-cultural society, I found it significant and helpful to think about American culture, although Blacking was couching his discussion in terms of British culture. (Chapter 7 could have been omitted from this volume, however, because Blacking has presented much of the material elsewhere.)

Readers who come to this book from the perspective of Western classical music studies will find vignettes for thought scattered throughout. In Chapter 2, on music as a means of communication, Blacking explores the matter of the personal nature of musical composition and appreciation. While Blacking does not communicate his point as clearly as he might have here, what I understand him to be saying is this: The relevance of composers' personal worlds and the relationship of those worlds to their musical output may affect what their music communicates to the rest of humanity only minimally, if at all. As Blacking says frequently in this book: The significant factor in communication is what listeners make of it, no matter what the composer intended. This is the case with unwritten music (his example: Venda music) and with written music (his example: Elgar's compositions). With regard to the "great-composer theory," Blacking says that this book is not the place to demolish it, but points out that it tends to reduce communication in society to a process of domination and submission, with aggressive leaders and passive followers (p. 33). Also in Chapter 2 we are led through Blacking's developing thought on "the individual," or as Grainger dubbed it, "personality."

The span from human evolution to artistic cognition to composition to cultural politics may seem too broad a sweep for one writer (actually, in this instance, two) to contemplate. For those of us familiar with Blacking's work, however, it seems a natural progression. I would recommend that newcomers to his thinking begin their reading with How Musical Is Man?, proceed to this, and keep watch in the future for further developments.


1Footnoted, of course, in the musicological tradition with a long list of references to effective scholarly refutations.

2Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

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