“The blank canvas” is a hypothetical psychoacoustic adaptation strategy which enables latter day American listeners to survive and even thrive within an environment of extreme musical diversity. This diversity is as much historical as it is cultural. Confronted by the unfamiliar aesthetic codes of foreign cultures and of Europe’s own past, the blank canvas strategy enables us to better tolerate what we hear (rather than reject it outright) by neutralizing what we do not understand, and then engaging with it more deeply, but on our own terms. The music of the cultural or historical other can become a blank canvas on which we may attempt to write our own meanings, seemingly free of the burden of memory, whether ours or the other’s. Music industry statistics suggest that a significant number of people are actively seeking out the less familiar in the marketplace as well as the college curriculum. If this is so, then perhaps the sensation of operating in a zone where musical memory is suspended or diminished is not only tolerable but desirable. This critique of the blank canvas strategy applies ideas of musical diversity in the work of scholars like Heinrich Besseler, Gary Tomlinson, and Clifford Geertz to a range of contexts: first, to “the global DJ project,” a world music and choreography experiment of the 1990s, and then to a series of musical examples from the Middle East, Africa, pre-nineteenth century Europe, and classic Hollywood film.
The music of our childhood, comparable to our mother tongue, is not the only music, or even the main music, which inhabits our lives. Uncontroversial as this statement may seem, at the beginning of every academic year the incoming freshmen in the professional music school where I teach music history and ethnomusicology need to hear it said. “Learning how to come to terms with an ever-increasing range of unfamiliar musical styles is part of musical maturation,” is how the annual sermon goes. “It’s like the way a child grows to adulthood, by moving gradually out through a widening circle of experiences away from the mother.” To eighteen year olds anxiously clutching the bundle of pieces which they have mastered (for the most part, by the same small group of composers) and which have earned them entry into this elite company, these words can be strangely threatening, as if they hinted at an imminent assault on their comfort zones and even their identities. For me, these observations are not assaultive, but neutral; they implicitly acknowledge the continuing importance of what we have learned at our mother’s knee, even as the circle of our new experiences widens with each passing year. The larger humanistic enterprise of the university—the one which emphasizes the broadening and enlightening mission of education in general, (Latin, educare "bring up” or “rear" and educere "bring out” or “lead forth"), and which lays claim to the “universe” in “university”—seems the natural setting for a scheme which links musical maturation to an expanding musical horizon.
For my purposes here, the corollary to this freshman year truism is of more interest, namely, that the rate at which those circles of musical experience have widened has not stayed constant, but has increased over the centuries. Comparing the homogeneity of musical style, syntax and instrumentation exhibited in Europe in 1700 to the heterogeneity exhibited in Europe and the United States in 2000—even if we do not take into account the effects of digital technology and the internet—the contrast in the density and range of diversity is undeniable. Cosmopolitan audiences of today experience their cocoons of sonic familiarity penetrated by musical diversity as never before, often against their will, in public places and through media. But diversity is not simply something which happens to us, it is also increasingly something we choose on our own. We are not only exposed to diversity, we buy it, listen to it repeatedly, internalize it, learn to play it and find it cropping up in our own creations. The fact that we are not simply passive to the onslaught of unfamiliar sounds—that we willingly open the gates to the outsider, even seek him out—is reason enough for us to reflect. Because so many of us actively take ownership of diversity, we may wonder whether, behind the shifts in consumer tastes, concert programming and university music curricula, a larger psychological process is at work which serves some purpose for each of us as individuals.
What is foreign to one person, of course, may be domestic to another—an Ars Nova motet, a piece by Ligeti and Inuit throat singing can sound equally exotic to an American freshman pianist whose aesthetic cornerstone is the Chopin Ballades. Rob Wegman has shown how Heinrich Besseler was among the first to alert the academy to the disturbing effects of this expanding field of vision. In 1927, Besseler called attention to “the plurality of equal historical periods” and “our current engagement with foreign musical cultures” which were placing challenging new questions before musicologists.2 From the perspective of what lay ahead, of course, he didn’t know the half of it. The phonograph revolution was barely a generation old, and yet he was already warning that the “blissfully self-evident framework of a closed musical tradition” was no longer possible and that “history today means something different from what it did even twenty years ago” (in Wegman 1998, 437). The exposure to exotic music recordings had not begun to reach the inundation levels of the late twentieth century, so the impact on the music academy he was describing was actually more a response to the Second Viennese School, to jazz and to pre-1800 European repertoires than to repertoires from outside of Europe. The larger point for us today is his assertion that these changes in the musical horizon were already making any reflections on music “a problematic undertaking of the first order” (437). Wegman points out that Besseler was unusual, but not alone in taking this position. Five years earlier, his contemporary Arnold Schering had also warned of the changes in our understanding of music, which occur as the distance between music maker and music hearer increases. Like Besseler, the distance Schering seemed to have felt most keenly was chronological and historical, but his words apply to the geographical and cultural kind as well: “a distance of fifty years is enough for the meaning of a composition to appear transformed through the prism of the changed inner life [of the time], and this difference is even more noticeable—indeed amounts to a total reinterpretation—when centuries lie in between.”3
In the decades since these prophetic observations, it has been more widely acknowledged that, once we move beyond certain basic parameters like tempo and dynamics (contrasts of fast-slow and loud-soft are found in many cultures and time periods), the most prized details of musical experience are learned and transmitted among members of a particular group or “affective community.” This late twentieth century term from the lexicons of anthropology and ethnomusicology4 might have been useful to earlier generations struggling with the implications of diversity. With it, Besseler might have both sharpened and broadened his rather one-sided criticism of the “naïve certainty” of many of his predecessors in Western musicology (he specifically named the august Hugo Reimann) whose contentment with the closed boundaries of European concert repertoire seemed to him less and less supportable given the variety of styles and repertoires confronting them. It is now much less of a stretch for us to accept the idea that any tradition or historical period—not just the Western concert tradition in the twentieth century—is a colony of shared aesthetic and emotional practices which are only more or less intelligible to outsiders.
At the other end of the twentieth century from Besseler and Schering, just as the global marketplace of exotic musics they never knew was beginning to hit its stride, Gary Tomlinson updated the earlier prophecy of diversity’s impact by arguing for the adoption of an anthropological view by historical musicology. Clifford Geertz’s studies of Balinese cock fights and Moroccan wedding rituals5 demonstrated to Tomlinson that any effort to understand another culture’s creations “involves an act of translation, the entangling, so to speak, of slightly or greatly differing webs, one man enriching his web of significant signs with the novelties that he perceives in another's.”6 The implication here is that working across historical and cultural distances to parse the networks of meaning imbedded in any human creation is a reflexive process, a two-way street where there are no all-powerful agents of influence and no passive recipients. Efforts to decode exotic musical signs require an interaction with those signs which Geertz himself described as “not a simple recasting of others’ ways of putting things in terms of our own ways of putting them (that is the kind in which things get lost), but displaying the logic of their ways of putting them in the locutions of ours; a conception which ... brings it rather closer to what a critic does to illumine a poem than what an astronomer does to account for a star.”7Their matrix of musical and non-musical meanings trigger our own meanings, making it possible for us to interpret those signs at all—that is, to formulate any response of our own which makes sense to us. Tomlinson and Geertz are very clear that there is no objective meaning available to the participants on either side of such cross-cultural interactions. In the process of observing, listening, and interpreting, our webs of meaning and theirs unavoidably entangle, raising the question of what it is, exactly, that we have experienced when we confront someone else’s creations. In Geertz’s summary of these entangled efforts to understand, the desired outcome is not theorizing so much as conversation:
We are seeking, in a widened sense of the term in which it encompasses very much more than talk, to converse with them, a matter a great deal more difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized … Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse”8 (1973, 13-14).
The distillation of Tomlinson’s and Geertz’s anthropologized view—“we cannot comprehend art works (or anything else) outside of a cultural context” (362)—has become commonplace in musicological discussions since Tomlinson advocated this posture nearly thirty years ago. We can now appreciate it as a continuation of the kind of view we read in Besseler’s skepticism about the Romantic view of Bach and Palestrina. Nineteenth century listeners, said Besseler, possessed the “naïve certainty to assimilate past things to modern conventions with a clear conscience.”9 Such a clear conscience is no longer available to us, neither in Besseler and Schering’s historical view nor in Tomlinson and Geertz’s anthropological view.
Besseler and Schering turn out to have been canaries in a coal mine, warning of what others could not yet see. But their observations were primarily about historiography, and not, as might seem natural to us in the present era of consumer marketing, about all the individually-made choices behind the growing diversity of musical styles. Nearly a century after they wrote their warnings, the selections on a well-worn CD in our own car stereo are likely to have originated in a remote period of history or on a continent we have never visited or in an American neighborhood we would not be comfortable living in. The chronological, cultural, and social distance these selections have traveled to get to us suggests the range within which individual choices are now being made—a range far wider than was conceivable in the 1920s. Certainly no one in Besseler and Schering’s generation had to face the phenomenon of “world music”—a term invented by the music industry in the 1980s to stand for “other people’s music.” It has been one of the fastest growing categories of the recorded music market in the United States and Europe for more than a generation.10 I want to make the case here that the growing frenzy of individual choice-making in the context of world music in our own time may also provide clues to some other process at work—call it a psychoacoustic survival strategy. It is first and foremost an individual strategy and its purpose is to manage diversity. But despite appearances to the contrary, I believe it is as much concerned with defending against the unfamiliar as with eagerly acquiring it. In the aggregate, the strategy also transcends individual choice, adding up to a social phenomenon, one which makes sense at a particular time in history when diversity has become inescapable. Putting it simply, if a significant number of people are actively seeking out the less familiar, then it may be that for those people the sensation of operating in a zone where musical memory is suspended or diminished is not only tolerable, but actually desirable. Why, we might ask, is such a situation desirable? What do we gain, for example, by embracing a range of expressions that clearly exceed our ability to understand what we are hearing? Or is understanding beside the point? What happens to our aesthetic responses when we don’t recognize the codes of meaning we find in music, and if we don’t recognize them, does it matter?
The Global DJ Project
These questions, and more, are brought to the surface by the global DJ project alluded to in my title. “Blank canvas” is the name I am proposing for what seems to be a widespread coping strategy for dealing with diversity in which we render unfamiliar sounds neutral, then provide our own content to what we are hearing. The blank canvas allows us to write our own script onto what has been handed us, personalizing it and making it more familiar, less threatening, more likeable. I believe the benefits of this strategy are clear, but they also come with costs. This is by no means the only observable strategy for dealing with diversity, but it is one with special implications for those of us who teach and write about music in its historical and cultural context.
A number of years ago, I was approached by a prominent New York modern dance company to collaborate in an open-ended exploration of music and movement which I have come to call the global DJ project. My assignment was to play recordings of excerpts I had selected from all parts of the world, as unfamiliar and diverse as possible, while dancers in pairs or trios would improvise to what I had chosen. So far, the project might call to mind what happens in many music appreciation and world music classes. But one particular stipulation placed on the exercise by the directors set this project apart from the university classroom. I was to present the selections blind, with no preamble on the music’s natural habitat, who was performing it or what function it served. Some of the pieces I brought to the session had words, but I was told I was not to provide translations. Slavic wedding rituals were followed by threshing songs from the Solomon Islands and trumpet fanfares for the Emir of Bornu, but none were identified as such. “No questions,” the dancers were told by the directors, “just listen and let your body respond—a meaning, if there is one, will emerge.” Many of the impromptu creations I saw in this project were strikingly beautiful, made possible by the dancers’ gestural imaginations and virtuosic athleticism. But what struck me most was that I actually felt something in response to what they created—perhaps a distinctive quality of tension or softness, maybe even of joy, fury, or eroticism. The exotic musical selections, interacting with the new contexts provided by the dancers’ bodies, clearly were capable of meaning something to an audience. They just didn’t necessarily mean what they had meant before the needle touched the record.
In the global DJ project, culture was stripped from the sounds themselves. It didn’t matter what the listeners knew about the musical idioms which I played, that is, what they remembered about them. Memory was explicitly excluded, or at least minimized. The questions I, as a musician and ethnomusicologist, would normally have asked of these musical examples in the course of listening—“What is going on?” or “Why might they be doing that?” or “What does this mean to the musicians?”—were placed off limits because they would only lead the dancers back to the special history of the musical selection itself, with all its exotic specificity of time and place. Paradoxically, the dancers seem to have made compelling use of the music they were given by, in a sense, ignoring it, by neutralizing all but certain of its sensual details, treating it as a kind of blank canvas. The delicate, percussive sweetness of the Burmese harp accompanying a wire-thin female voice (an example of a centuries-old court music tradition) became the occasion for the dancers (moving slowly and smoothly, limbs tense, with sudden menacing shifts and asymmetries) to create an emotionally-charged event packed with its own content. The very blankness of the musical canvas—blank because the memories originally attached to the sounds were willfully excluded from the event—provided the pretext for the dancers to explore their own emotion and to make compelling new art.
Blank Canvasses in the Making: Madrigal, Opera, Arabic Melodies and Yoruba Rhythms
The significance which listeners and musicians attribute to particular musical details derives mainly from repeated hearing—significance, meaning of any kind, is a cultural artifact, rooted in memory. This is another way of naming the cultural context which Tomlinson and Geertz (focused on understanding The Other) cautioned against ignoring, and which the dancers in the global DJ project (focused on creating arresting new aesthetic experience) chose to ignore. As Besseler and Schering observed, the farther back in history our listening habits carry us, the more our understanding of the musical idioms withers, leaving us less and less basis for interpretation of what we hear. And yet at the same time, the past is where our own codes of communal meaning are rooted, and it is these codes which are, though we may not be aware of it, the necessary starting point for any interpretations we make of sounds we hear in the present. There is thus no avoiding going “back” through time as we attempt to move “out” through culture. Making sense of the diversity of the music we consider exotic requires a thoughtful confrontation with the history of whatever music we claim to be our own.
In European culture, the deep association of specific emotions with specific details of melody, texture, and rhythm, and the explicit promotion of those associations, has a long legacy reaching back to classical antiquity. M.H. Abrams characterized this lengthy tradition in the arts (not just in music) as “pragmatic” in that its intent is to elicit an effect in the viewer or listener. Abrams goes so far as to say that “the pragmatic view, broadly conceived, has been the principal aesthetic attitude of the Western world.”11This intent on accomplishing an end result in a listening audience found a home in the classical practices of oratory and its development in European music was often articulated by composers and theorists under the heading of rhetoric.12 Reading the openly rhetorical concerns of Italian and English composers of the Renaissance, we catch clear glimpses of the aesthetic codes now animating our present day interactions with other people’s music. For instance, their writings bear witness to a range of what we can only assume were widely-accepted text-music associations which composers harnessed to illustrate key words of a poetic text in forms like the secular madrigal and, to a lesser extent, the mass. Some of these practices relied on visual analogies and were as naively illustrative as Saturday morning cartoons, giving descending lines to words like “down,” “hell” and “despair,” and ascending lines to “up,” “heaven” and “joy.”13 Often the discussion is lacking in such specifics, simply advising that the qualities of music and text must somehow match, which suggests that writers felt no need to say more specifically what they presumed was understood in the society at large. But specific norms of interval use, both melodic and harmonic, were also advocated and disputed. In 1558, Zarlino called on composers to respect the fact that the intervals of semitone and minor third and minor sixth are most appropriate to “grief, affliction, sighs, [and] tears” and differ distinctly from the quality of the whole step and major third and major sixth which “signify harshness, hardness, cruelty, bitterness and other things of this sort.”14 Thomas Morley in 1597 amplified Zarlino by suggesting that in his day there may have also been gender associations with a composition’s tendency toward chromatic alterations (“more effeminate and languishing”) or toward “natural” movement (“more masculine,” lending it “more virility”).15
Hard as it is to summarize the full range of details in these practices as if they represented a consensus, let alone a compositional formula, of one thing we can be reasonably certain: Europeans of the Renaissance, including both musicians and their audiences, shared a common inclination to make specific associations of emotion and quality with specific musical gestures. To composers, emotional representation in music was, to some degree, a legible code, a language which demanded a coherent practice because it was assumed that meaning was not merely individual, but collective. Even though individual musicians might not have agreed on what all the details of melody and rhythm meant, they considered the evocation of specific emotions and meanings as an aspect of conscious musical craft, and their attempts to define that craft provide later generations with clues to how the sixteenth century European house of emotions was furnished. Any backward look at this craft is bound to be a mixed experience, impressing us with both the strangeness and the familiarity of many details of sixteenth century expression. Isolated remnants of the earlier language remain active ingredients in our current hearing, at moments complicating our awareness of the historical distance that exists between us and what we hear.
The rationalist ideal of the Enlightenment continued these practices in a more systematic way, linking specific emotions with specific rhythmic and melodic gestures in a web of tropes which, for all that it was assumed to be universal, was still very much an insider’s game. Through a continuation of the rhetoric paradigm, the recurrence and transformation of themes and the modulation from one key to another were articulated by composer-theorists like Jean-Philippe Rameau as the musical equivalent of the development of themes in oratory and the distinction between subjects and predicates in speech.16 Clarity of sense and clarity of feeling were (especially among French and German writers) part of a common obligation of the musical craftsman, and an expectation of the listener. The various rhythm and tempo combinations in instrumental music, developed over many generations of composers and improvisers for social dancing, added its own special kinesthetic cues to musical meaning. Composers commonly distinguished between several different dance types in the same meter, as in Johann Mattheson’s discussion of two triple meter forms: “the ordinary or English gigue,” for instance, embodies “hot and hurried eagerness, anger that soon evaporates,” while the “slow and dotted” loures “exhibit a proud and pompous character which makes them very popular in Spain.”17 If an aria or instrumental prelude struck a seventeenth or eighteenth century listener as embodying gaiety, gravity, or coquettishness, they were responding in part to muscle memory not available to us today—they were recalling the bodily sensation of momentum and weight and exertion peculiar to the meter and tempo they were hearing.18
Opera, the new invention of the seventeenth century, growing out of non-dramatic Renaissance vocal forms like the madrigal, was the arena where this approach was worked out most thoroughly, although this fact is mostly hidden to classical music audiences today. By the eighteenth century, if listeners felt the full emotional impact of Ptolemy’s vengeful aria “L’Empio, sleale, indegno” in the first act of Handel’s Giulio Cesare it was because they understood certain well-worn conventions: that rapid descending scalar passages in triple meter and a major key with dotted-note figures and wide melodic leaps were coded elements which, taken together, added up to what, in the context of the opera’s plot, might be captioned “the-rage-which-befits-an-aristocratic-man-who-is-sinister-but-noble” (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. G.F. Handel, “L’Empio, sleale, indegno,” Giulio Cesare, aria Act I, Scene 6 (first three lines).
The point in these examples is not that composers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment were especially formulaic in their approach to composition. Rather, the examples remind us of the aesthetic distance between music maker then and music listener now which we could easily escape our notice because we are not insiders acquainted with the local codes. Most modern listeners acquainted with opera through recordings are likely to be unaware that the primo uomo roles of Ptolemy and Caesar were both composed by Handel for singers who were alto castrati—full-grown men castrated before adolescence to keep their voices high. Seventeenth and eighteenth century opera audiences in Italy and England (less so in France and Germany) expected to hear kings, military leaders and gods singing in soprano range (castrati were gradually replaced by women in male dress), suggesting that many Europeans of the opera-going class at that time associated high voice not just with virtuosic display and with refinement (qualities still recognizable in high voices in the twenty-first century), but also high social rank and even elevated morality, regardless of gender.19 In the twenty-first century the idea of a man singing in female range may strike us as bizarre (if we have not already joined the small but enthusiastic audience for Phillipe Jaroussky), but we are likely to not even notice the potential conflict in gender roles when we hear what was conceived for an eighteenth century castrato in a collection of selected arias by our favorite soprano. In any case, in Handel's time the only way to gain access to the full range of these emotional representations was the long way, by repeated listening to live music and by formal musical training. A modest level of skill in dance and music were social expectations of any educated Englishman, Frenchman, or German. They were cultural acquisitions built on shared memory.
We should assume the presence of comparable insider details in any musical repertoire of the world in any period in history, even though we may not be aware of them. Take, for instance, the nuances of pitch a fraction of the size of the Western half-step which help to differentiate the unique qualities of a given Arabic maqam—the modes which serve as the basis of at least eight centuries of Arabic composition and improvisation. Such miniscule distinctions can be a crucial part of the code which says to the knowledgeable listener “this is Maqam Bayyati,” triggering a chain of associations to song lyrics, moods and religious rituals surrounding the large, centuries-old Bayyati family of melodies, distinguishing it from other families of melodies such as the Husayni family. Though the scales of Bayyati and Husayni look very similar if written on a modified Western staff (as they have been for more than a century), the treatment of the sixth degrees is crucially different (see Figure 2).20
Figure 2. Microtonal differences between two Arabic maqams.
Bayyati: D E♭ F G A B♭ C D
Husayni: D E♭ F G A B♭ C D
B♭ = 2/4 of whole step B♭ = 3/4 of whole step
The difference between these two pitches is less than one half of the piano’s tempered half step, but it is no less meaningful to Arabic listeners than the different phonemes “ee” and “e” are to English speakers. By any physical measure—for example, if we calibrated the exact placement of the finger on the relatively short neck of the unfretted oud or the position of the tongue in the mouth—both these musical and linguistic examples are so small as to be almost unmeasurable. And yet, the precise placement of these values is crucial to the meaning they convey to members of their respective affective communities. To the uninitiated American ear, pitch differences smaller than those on the piano, if they are not simply written off as out of tune, will probably be interpreted as a kind of coloring, comparable to a tone of voice, rather than as a specific strand in Geertz’s web of symbols. In other words, a listener will most likely derive meaning for such musical moments, either by dismissal or by re-interpretation, though, as in the case of the dancers in the global DJ project, the meaning will not be the same as that of the community for which it was made.
This Arabic example emphasizes one particular characteristic of our musical memory bank—that even the smallest of musical details matter to those who know enough to pay attention to them. The so-called “talking drum”21 repertoires of Nigeria, in which drummers mimic the speech patterns in the tonally-inflected Yoruba language, emphasize a different characteristic of musical memory—that the interplay of a range of musical cues can trigger astonishingly complex chains of stored non-musical experience. In the 1970s the Nigerian musician and director Duro Ladipo (1931–1978) created the contemporary epic dance drama Oba Ko So based on the life of Shango, the fifteenth century warrior king of the extensive Yoruba empire in West Africa.22The cast of Shango’s wives (some of them Ladipo’s own wives), courtiers, rival generals and Shàngo himself (played by Ladipo himself) was accompanied by a stage orchestra of two different traditional ensembles which played at times separately and at times together. To a Yoruba-speaking audience, the deep glissandos of the dundun or talking drums spoke for secular power, since Yorubas associate those instruments and rhythms with the entourages of the Yoruba kings by whom these drummers were employed for centuries, translating Yoruba praise songs and epic poetry into pitch and rhythm. The other ensemble of batá drums, with their distinctive high, rapid, and brittle staccato, brought with them associations to religious rituals (before Ladipo’s use of them, the exclusive domain of batá) in which dancers and drummers, through particular rhythms and movements, bring down the power of particular deities for the purpose of healing, blessing, or guidance.
Ladipo’s story of imperial power, like Handel’s Giulio Cesare, moves through jealousy, betrayal and fights to the death, but at the end, unlike Caesar, Shàngo is disgraced and takes his own life. Just as Handel’s classically educated eighteenth century audience knew the stories of Caesar’s Egyptian campaign, twentieth century Nigerian audiences immediately recognized Ladipo’s tale as the foundation myth for Shango’s elevation to the Yoruba religious pantheon as the God of thunder. This is how he is revered today as one of the most potent orishas (deities) in Yoruba religion. The switch from dundun to batá drums signals to the initiated listener the shift in emphasis from Shango’s secular kingship to his power as a mortal who has died and been redeemed in immortality. The repeated instrumental rhythm that opens and closes the play is impossible for any listener to miss, initiated or uninitiated. But for Yoruba speakers the passage actually delivers the story’s moral and the play’s title, drawn from praise poetry associated with Shango: “oba ko so”—“the king did not die” (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Praise poetry associated with Shango: “oba ko so”—“the king did not die.”
o-ba ko so o-ba ko so
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪
The musical texture of the production is thick with such rhythmic utterances, where phrases “spoken” by the dun-dun players create a counterpoint of Yoruba aphorisms which provide a commentary on the dialogue and action. These are specific allusions meaningful only to Yoruba speakers who are also familiar with the dundun tradition. To all other listeners, they are simply more or less interesting and attractive sonorities to which the listener may attach his or her own meaning.
Throughout the United States tour by Ladipo’s troupe in 1972, uninitiated audiences, aided only by brief program notes, were gripped by the melodious qualities of the Yoruba dialogue, by the dancing and singing, and especially by the raw power and virtuosity of the drumming. In a real sense, they did not need to know what the Yoruba themselves knew about these musical tropes. They walked out of the theater exhilarated, wanting to hear more. But it is also impossible to claim that the meaning Yoruba listeners and American listeners derived from Oba Ko So was the same. Ulli Beier, stressing the importance of dundun or talking drum poetry as a repertoire of conventions linked to the tonal Yoruba language, describes what happened in the 1960s when the new Nigerian national radio station was creating a signature for its broadcasts and decided that it should be rendered on a drum. A traditional dundun drummer was presented with the spoken English phrase, “This is the Nigerian broadcasting service,” which he duly translated to a dynamic three-tone sequence which was subsequently adopted by the radio as its theme. As a phrase which was in English and which did not draw upon remembered repertoire of Yoruba poetry, the project had two strikes against it. On the street, interpretations of the drummed signature ran from “When the chief of Ibadan dies, who will be his successor?” to “He eats black banana, then he has belly trouble” to “No one is poor here, go to the next house.”23
Sad and Happy in Hollywood and in Istanbul
Another Middle Eastern example carries us deeper into the kind of translation or mistranslation of meaning in the Nigerian example. It is more than a case of mispronunciation (which is important enough in its own right) and suggests some of the more far-reaching social consequences of listening across distance. In this example, Wegman, Besseler, and Schering’s historical ear, which calculates distance in years, and Geertz and Tomlinson’s anthropological ear, which calculates distance in cultural codes and practices, create an entangled set of meanings on the surface of what I am calling the blank canvas.
As a performer of Turkish classical music over the past 30 years, I have had the opportunity to observe the range of responses to it by American audiences, the most common of which may be summed up by two apparently contradictory statements: “it all sounds the same” and “it all sounds sad.” Let me attempt a translation: “it all sounds the same” = “I don’t hear anything I recognize so it quickly loses any quality except foreignness, like listening to a 90 minute speech in Urdu”; “it all sounds sad” = “I do hear something I recognize and I know it as ‘sad.’” The first statement seems to express the discomfort of a listener who comes to the performance with an expectation of understanding the music’s syntax and vocabulary, but cannot get past the conviction that he or she suffers a fatal lack of prior experience. Try as the listener will, nothing familiar emerges and the experience quickly becomes featureless. In the second statement, the listener may also have come with expectations of understanding, but has somehow managed to leap over the music’s initial impression of foreignness and fastened on a particular musical detail out of the whole which is familiar—rather like finding in an otherwise amorphous cloud a particular bulge which resembles a puppy dog.
I believe that, when uninitiated listeners hear Turkish music as sad they have come by this notion honestly; they have detected the presence of a particular melodic sequence they recognize, the minor third, or even the minor triad, which is unavoidably heard in relation to its affective complement, the major third and triad. It would be hard to find a more widely-disseminated pair of musical symbols in the West than the concepts of major and minor. Learning to distinguish them is still one of the most basic elements of professional musical training in the West, which has also tended to reinforce the idea of the two as embodying contrasting emotional states, although the exact definition of each state remains vague. Returning to Handel’s Giulio Cesare, we find a clear illustration of how the major and minor qualities could be harnessed to widely-recognized mood associations of the time within a well-established musical form, in this case, the da capo aria. Cleopatra’s famous love song in the second act (see Figure 4) opens with a profession of unambiguous love for Caesar in F major: “V’adoro pupille, saette d’Amore” (I adore you, eyes, arrows of love). But in the B section halfway through the text of her soliloquy she has a moment of vulnerability—“Pietose vi brama il mesto mio core” (My sad heart wishes you merciful)—and Handel switches for those two lines to the relative minor key. At the repeat of the enthusiastic sentiment of the opening, “V’adoro pupille,” Cleopatra once again sings in major.
Figure 4. Aria, “V’adoro pupille,” from G.F. Handel, Giulio Cesare, Act II.
A [F major]
V'adoro, pupille, saette d'amore, (I adore you, eyes, arrows of love)
le vostre faville son grate nel sen. :|| (fine) (Your sparks are welcome to my breast)
B [d minor]
Pietose vi brama il mesto mio core, (My sad heart wishes you merciful,)
ch'ogn'ora vi chiama l'amato suo ben. || (D.C.) (Since always it calls you its beloved.)
Of course, the major-minor trope, documented in thousands of seventeenth and eighteenth century compositions representing a wide range of moods and contexts, has a more complex history than this one example can show. Even the switch from major to minor or minor to major in the B section of the Baroque da capo aria—often representing a kind of rhetorical “on the other hand”—is better understood as a common method for establishing contrast than as an orthodox representation of particular emotions. In the nineteenth century, the major-minor trope continued and even distilled and simplified to something more like a sad-happy dualism, though this occurred in the context of an increase in the frequency of modulation and chromaticism overall. Subtle mood-related fluctuations between parallel major and minor keys in vocal music—for example, like the repetition of “an dich hab’ ich gedacht” (I have thought about you), first in major and then in the parallel minor, in the last line of Schubert’s “Gute nacht” from Winterreise—may have even contributed to the gradual blurring of the major-minor categories themselves, a goal which later composers like Debussy explicitly espoused.24 But the dissolution of these affective tropes in certain repertoires and their continuation and distillation in others which have taken place since the nineteenth century are also features of the diverse context for the blank canvas in our own day. Scraps of the emotional codes of the European Renaissance and Baroque eras are still maintained (as Bessler first noticed) in a kind of pluralism of codes of many historical periods and regions. In the twentieth century, this mixed transmission has been accomplished as much through the popular media as through classical concert repertoire.
Max Steiner, the Vienna-trained musician who set the early standard for Hollywood film scores from the 1930s to the 1950s, channeled the full array of orchestral, harmonic and formal practices of Lehar, Johann Strauss (his godfather) and Mahler to millions of Americans who might have thought they knew nothing of the Viennese tradition. In the opening credits of his 1945 soundtrack of Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz, what turns out to be the main character’s theme is stated in a major key as her name appears on the screen. The opening scene which immediately follows the credits takes a Handelian (or is it Schubertian?) turn: A man is shot by an unseen assailant and the victim murmurs Mildred’s name as a fragment of the same theme is heard again, only in minor.25
The influence of Hollywood films on the shaping of twentieth century American aesthetic codes—however unevenly or inconsistently—cannot be underestimated. Studies of ambient music in public spaces in the United States and Britain since Steiner created hundreds of film scores for RKO and Warner make it clear that some of the same musical stereotypes which saturate workplaces, department stores, shopping malls and elevators draw on many of the tropes of tempo, key, and genre of Steiner’s Mildred Pierce. Beginning in the 1930s, the mining of musical conventions rooted ultimately in practices of the past has been completely self-conscious in commercial ambient music, with the explicit goal of harnessing the public’s musical associations to increase work productivity in the workplace and “to induce in shoppers moods and feelings of openness and receptivity.”26 A series of psychological surveys of responses to muzak and other versions of easy-listening and commercial music in the 1960s found elements that Zarlino, Handel, and Schubert would have recognized; “sad” was clearly linked by listeners to “slow music, low in pitch range, with minor tonality,” while “playful” was linked to “fast music, high in pitch range, with few dissonances, in major keys.”27
So much for Hollywood, but what about Istanbul? What sort of background does this multi-century Western tradition of the major-minor trope provide for an uninitiated American listener to Turkish music, perhaps one inclined to hear it as “sad”? Figure 5 is an excerpt from the notation of a Turkish ağır semâi, a genre of classical song, by the nineteenth century composer Hamamizade İsmâil Dede Efendi (1778-1846). As with a piece of western vocal music, we might turn our attention first to the song text. The mood of the poetry here is ambiguous and multi-valent—wistful but adoring, full of longing but also elated—in any case, not easily placed in either a sad or a happy category. While Western concepts of major and minor harmony have no equivalent in the monophonic Turkish makam tradition, the melodic gestures in the notation contain many note groupings which could possibly strike a western ear as “minor” in quality, as well as groupings which could sound “major.”
Figure 5. Ağır semai in Sûzinâk makam (first four lines only), Hamamizade İsmâil Dede Efendi (1778-1846).
Likewise, the makam or mode of the piece, Sûzinâk, with a basic scale form of G A♭ B♭ C D E♭ F♯ G, would not immediately suggest either a Western major or minor scale. As in the earlier Arabic example, the unfamiliar tuning of certain pitches like the A♭ and E♭ (slightly sharper than A♭ and E♭ on the piano), B♭ (considerably sharper than the piano’s B♭) and F♯ (slightly flatter than the piano’s F♯)28 and the unfamiliar configurations like D-E♭-F♯-G together put pressure on a Western ear to search for something that is recognizable. Because of differences between Turkish tuning and Western equal temperament, thirds of any kind are likely to strike the Western ear as ambiguous in quality. In the Sûzinâk scale and in the melody, the minor third-sounding combinations of A♭-B♭, B♭-D, and C-E♭ are there for the picking, but the major third-sounding intervals of G-B♭, D-F♯, and E♭-G are no less prominent.
I have always been struck by the tendency for Western listeners, when confronted with both major and minor qualities in a Turkish piece—each of them ambiguous in its own way—to hear “minor” as the default quality overall. I believe we would be justified in concluding that there must be other, non-musical, reasons for resolving musical ambiguities in this way, ones which conform to already held, even unconscious convictions about the world at large. We will return to say more about the non-musical context of musical tropes in the final section of this paper. But it is no coincidence that intervals of the minor type in this example have been assigned meanings like “serious” and “lamentable” in European music treatises beginning in the Renaissance and that composers like Handel, Schubert, and Steiner also harnessed the major and minor qualities to evoke an affective contrast compatible with “happy” and “sad.” It seems that, as we explore twenty-first century experience of an exotic music like this Turkish song, we find ourselves once again facing emotional benchmarks which have shaped the European ear over at least four centuries.
The musical detail of the full array of affective codes in the Handel example has faded for most of us over the centuries. However, after some 400 years of listening to tragic opera scenes, song texts and film scores about pain and unrequited love, all in artful settings rooted in minor triads, is it any wonder that a Western ear would fasten on such a fortuitous find as a minor third-like phenomenon in the otherwise unfamiliar context of Turkish music? And yet, after many years of studying and performing Turkish music, I can say that I have never heard a Turkish performer or teacher place a label like “sad” on any pitch combination resembling a minor third or triad. I feel confident in saying that, despite an inexhaustible supply of sad love songs in the Turkish tradition, these do not make greater use of anything resembling minor than happy ones.29
What I believe the so-called world music phenomenon has shown us is that unfamiliarity itself, that is, experience falling outside of specific musical vocabulary stored in memory, has at least two sides—one, an opportunity, the other, a hazard. Unfamiliar expressions of any kind may be impenetrable and therefore uncomfortable, even threatening, for those who expect to understand them the way that they understand the idioms they consider their own. This explains, at least in part, the incoming freshmen’s defensive reaction to unfamiliar repertoires described at the beginning of this essay. But as we have seen, encounter with unfamiliar idioms has an upside as well, a benefit more recent and more specialized than the contribution it has always made to the humanistic education. Besseler and Schering, from their position at the beginning of the twentieth century’s explosion of styles and repertoires, could not have foreseen that strange or unintelligible musics can be forgiving and even liberating for those who are able, at least temporarily, to suspend their need to connect with a shared lexicon of meaning, and who can then surrender to the sensuous charms of the canvas itself. The music of another affective community—with its meaning neutralized but with its sensuous substance intact—can become a canvas on which an individual listener can paint his or her own meanings. And a uniquely evocative canvas it is, a palimpsest in which the vague shadows of someone else’s experience engage with our own in a conversation that may be only partly conscious.
No questions, just listen and let your body respond—if there is a meaning, it will emerge—this was the instruction governing the dancers’ choreographic exercise. It is also a concise enunciation of the blank canvas strategy, which is, if nothing else, a pragmatic adaptation enabling us to not simply get by within an environment of diversity, but to embrace it and even thrive in it. The peculiar combination of restriction and freedom in the dancers’ instruction seems well-suited to an average day in an American city which is likely to present us with the familiar and the unfamiliar in about equal proportions. It gives us permission to neutralize what we do not understand in other people’s experience, perhaps to better tolerate it rather than reject it outright, and from there, to possibly engage with it more deeply, but on our own terms.
Curiously, this upside to the blank canvas strategy at moments resembles the enlarged human discourse that Geertz prized as the goal of anthropological research. The unavoidable entanglement of webs of meaning which occurs when we listen to the Nonesuch Explorer Series or to Djelmadi Tounkara or to Sequentia’s performance of twelfth century florid organum requires us to translate what we hear in a way which, as Geertz put it, more resembles the interaction between critic and poem than that between astronomer and star. But here is where the hazard of the blank canvas strategy becomes apparent. Although it veers toward Geertz’s and Tomlinson’s interactive model of understanding, in the end the blank canvas strategy is not about understanding so much as coping. I am suggesting here that, for all of the enthusiasm it stimulates for diversity, the blank canvas also is a means of holding diversity at arms length. In the twenty-first century the anthropologist and the consumer of pan-historical and pan-cultural music may share a common curiosity, but in the end the blank canvas strategy seeks to bring an end to curiosity. It opens the door to the other, but quickly closes it. It functions as a defensive action, a means of controlling, neutralizing and adapting the expressions of the other. As we have seen in various examples, the vagueness of the impressions of the other, which result from historical or cultural distance, is crucial to the blank canvas process. If the shadows of experience in a particular musical example are too distinct—that is, if we are able in some sense to hear their imbedded meanings in greater detail, as an insider—we are less able to paint over them. We might not even be inclined to paint over them at all. Once the canvas has been rendered sufficiently blank, then we can make it our own. The madness or spirituality we perceive in a Mongolian Long Song, a Notre Dame organum, or Balinese wayang kulit might then be as much our madness or spirituality as theirs. This is a situation which the anthropological view of music history can embrace, at least in part, but in the end, understanding human expressions in depth is not to be confused with managing their effects on us.
The stranger’s musical idioms are not simply a surface to be skimmed, but are inseparable from the very social realities which were excluded from the dancers’ exercise in the global DJ project. These are not realities which go away or modulate because we have ignored them. Like contemporary American audiences, European travelers 250 years ago heard “sadness” in Turkish music, but they heard “passivity,” “decadence,” and “effeminacy” in it as well, qualities which arose effortlessly for them from unchallenged convictions about the flaws of Islamic civilization which they had imbibed with their mothers’ milk.30 Aspects of refinement in the Turkish idiom—its elaborate system of modes and tunings, its complex conversational performance aesthetic and its very different division of labor between composers and performers, for example—failed to register on the senses of nineteenth century Europeans, at least in part, because they could not rise sufficiently above received wisdom to engage more closely with these unfamiliar elements.
Besides, the view that this music was colorful but passive, decadent, and effeminate fit easily into the prevailing imperialistic program of the time. In the eyes of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans, Middle Eastern peoples (in addition to the quintessential otherness of Islam itself) lacked familiar signs of vitality such as factories, printing presses, stock exchanges, parliaments and modern armies, and the qualities which Europeans attributed to Middle Eastern music conveniently offered no challenge to this view. The program of domination could proceed without dissonance from the musical quarter, which was engaged in creating enduring works full of “oriental” color and charm (sometimes drawn from direct experience of the Middle East, often not) like Gioachino Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (1813), Felicien David’s Le Desert (1844), and Guiseppi Verdi’s Aida (1871). The “decadence” earlier generations heard in Turkish music did not seem to require questioning any more than the “sadness”—the unconscious choice of “minor” as the default quality—which current American audiences hear in it. Those former generations and those modern audiences, like the New York dancers, got through the impasse presented by unfamiliar, distracting, or potentially threatening material by neutralizing what they heard, then creatively engaging with the remaining elements they found accessible. They too just listened and let their bodies respond, and the meanings that seemed most natural and reasonable to them emerged.
Closer to home, the example of African-American music, spanning all genres from hip hop to classical, reminds twenty-first century Americans of the benefits which can accrue from centuries of creative engagement with the other’s music. That engagement has been two-way and it has been held up as a sign of hope, a metaphor for the eventual resolution of the contradictions injected into American history with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.31 But it is also a sobering reminder of the limits of the blank canvas as a coping strategy. However much American culture as a whole has absorbed (gradually, and piecemeal) elements of African-American music (carrying with it elements of Yoruba, Akan, and Ashanti music), the painful dissonance of our shared history of dehumanization remains. The neutralize-and-free-associate strategy of dealing with unfamiliar musical experience, much as it may genuinely comfort us or enrich us or open us to the unfamiliar, is not to be confused with cultural or historical understanding. To put it harshly, we have not resolved the tension between us and them and between present and past by ignoring what we do not understand and interacting with what we can handle of the rest. Our discomfort with what lies beyond our experience must still be faced, in spite of the pleasure and inspiration we derive from the bits and pieces of strangeness which we have adapted to our own purposes.
We are well-advised to read caution into these tales of creative and scholarly engagements with the other’s music. Culture can be suspended, and to good effect, but not indefinitely. Memory, in the long run, will not be circumvented. The canvas is not really blank.
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2Besseler, Grundfragen de Musikästhetik, quoted in Wegman, “Das Musikalische Hören,” 437-438. Subsequent page references are given in parentheses. According to Wegman, Besseler’s focus was on the changes that have taken place in musical listening (“musikalishe Hören”), and even suggested a shift of scholarly emphasis away from its habitual focus on the musical page to the musical act itself. Wegman also suggests that Besseler modified has radical critique somewhat in his later work. (Wegman, 445) Besseler’s role under National Socialism continues to be disputed. See Gerhard, “Musicology in the ‘Third Reich’: A Preliminary Report”, 521-525.
4For examples of the full array of cultural phenomena which fall under this term in anthropology, see the affective community issue of Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, May 2003, Chris Healy and Stephen Muecke (eds); also, Leela Ghandi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, Duke University Press, 2006.
10See Timothy Taylor, Global Pop, 2-3 for a concise retelling of the often repeated founding myth of the World Music category by music industry leaders in England in 1987. Taylor also quotes a Newsweek interview with the international buyer for Tower Records in 1988, who claimed that the international section was “definitely the fastest growing part of the store” (Taylor, Global Pop, 1). Nigel Williamson, in his retrospective article reviewing developments in the “world music” category since its creation 20 years ago (“World Beaters,” Billboard, 2007: 26-28), quotes Virgin Records’ manager for music Simon Coe: “Although there are no official stats, world music probably accounts for 2% of the entire market.” In the UK, says Coe, world music sells better than all other specialty markets such as folk, blues and country music. Between 2004 and 2007, when the whole music market in the UK declined by 10%, world music increased by 4%. In the US, from 2002 to 2006, when Jazz fell by 31% and New Age by more than 50%, world music declined by only 13%, the same as the U.S. music industry as a whole. Other signs of growth include: creation of a world music category for the Grammys, world music’s own Billboard chart, and the success of the annual world music trade fair, WOMEX, founded in 1994.
11Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Traditions, 20-21. See the discussion of Abrams and the pragmatic view in Bonds, Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the metaphor of the Oration, 55.
13So common was this literal pictorialism in the secular madrigal, that writers like Vincenzo Galilei (1520-91) were driven to condemn its excesses as “more outlandish than those of any far-off barbarism” (Galilei, Dialogo della musica antica, et della moderna, 186-187).
15Morely, Plain and Easie Introduction, 144-145. This kind of “gendered discourse” has also stimulated discussion in our own day over the possibility that such concerns can even be found in repertoires before the sixteenth century. See, for example, Fuller, Sarah. “Concerning Gendered Discourse in Medieval Music Theory: Was the Semitone ‘Gendered Feminine’?" 65-89.
16See Lucinda Heck Sloan’s study of seventeenth and eighteenth century French cantatas, especially chapter six, An investigation into the influence of rhetoric on Jean-Philippe Rameau's solo vocal cantatas and treatise of 1722, especially chapter 6 (161-252).
18See the first chapter of Allanbrook’s Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (13-31) for an extended discussion of how dance tropes inherited from the Renaissance were translated into eighteenth century dramatic music. For an argument emphasizing the linguistic basis of any analysis which seeks meaning in musical gestures, see chapter 1, “Music as Language” in Kofi Agawu’s Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music, 15-40.
21Also described as a “pressure drum” because the pitch of each stroke of the stick in one hand is inflected by tightening or loosening the tension on the laces attached to the two drum heads with the opposite arm.
24A conversation between the young Claude Debussy and one of his teachers at the conservatoire, Ernest Giraud, was recorded by Maurice Emmanuel, a fellow student: “It is nonsense to speak of ‘simple’ and ‘compound’ time. There should be an interminable flow of both. Relative keys are nonsense, too. Music is neither major nor minor. Minor thirds and major thirds should be combined, modulation thus becoming more flexible. The mode is that which one happens to choose at the moment. It is inconstant…” (Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 207).
25Born Maximillian Raoul Steiner in 1888, his early years in Vienna, with studies at the Imperial Academy and with the likes of Gustav Mahler (conducting) and Robert Fuchs (music theory), Steiner provides a direct connection for Hollywood film music to the conventions of nineteenth century European music. For more on the techniques of emotional cuing which Steiner established and codifed, see Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 70-98, as well as Steiner’s own interview in Naumburg, ed., We Make the Movies, 216-238.
28In twentieth century Turkish theory (named the Ezgi-Arel system after its two principle architects), the whole tone is divided into nine equal divisions, each of which is called a koma. This contrasts with the Arabic system first articulated in the nineteenth century, which divides the whole tone in four equal divisions. In Turkish practice, only three sharps and three flats, representing the most commonly used pitch inflections, appear on notated compositions: the 5 koma x and b (114 cents), the 4 koma ♯ and b (90 cents), and the 1 koma ≠ and d (23 cents). Musicians tend to treat these intervals flexibly, depending on ascending or descending motion and on the general modal (makam) context. For a concise introduction to Turkish makam system, see Signell, “Contemporary Turkish Makam Practice,” 47-58.
29The emphasis of this paper is on affective practices like the major-minor dyad as cultural codes established over time within particular communities. An alternative interpretation of these practices based on the analytical conventions of Western music theory, linguistics and psycho-acoustics may be found in Cook, “The Sound Symbolism of Major and Minor Harmonies,” 315-319. For an experiment-based study combining both cultural and cognitive approaches, see Demorest, et al., “Lost in Translation: An Enculturation Effect in Music Memory Performance”, 220 which concluded that “enculturation is a powerful influence on the processing and subsequent recognition of musical information.”
31Paul Oliver’s review of two decades of recording and research on the blues attests to the breadth of interaction between African-American music-making and both academic musicology and commercial recording in the 20th century (Oliver, “Blues Research: Problems and Possibilities,” 377-390). Eileen Southern has spoken for the interaction of African-American and classical European music most comprehensively in her The Music of Black Americans: A History.