Moondog on Bibliolore

Moondog in NYC (photograph sourced courtesy of Bibliolore)

Over at Bibliolore, they featured Moondog this week:

Louis T. Hardin, known to all as Moondog, was celebrated among New Yorkers for two decades as a mysterious and extravagantly clothed blind street performer; but he went on to win acclaim in Europe as an avant-garde composer, conducting orchestras before royalty.

From the late 1940s until the early 1970s Moondog stood like a sentinel on Avenue of the Americas near 54th Street. Rain or shine, he wore a homemade robe, sandals, a flowing cape, and a horned Viking helmet, and clutched a long homemade spear.

Forest in Bloom

We had the chance to go out in the woods last weekend. It’s definitely spring in the MidAtlantic region, and it’s a great time to see the woods leafing out for summer! We saw spicebush (lindera benzoin) in bloom, with its understated light yellow flowers. Though small, they do stand out when everything else is still gray and brown. If you look closely, there was a native bee or fly gathering food on one.

Later, we also saw some service berries in bloom (amelanchier canadensis, I suspect). They have larger, but still rather slight five-petaled white blossoms.

U. of Maryland Extension reported that spicebush was blooming in Ellicott City, Maryland on March 24 this year, which was just a few days before this sighting.

Public Musicology as Connectivity

The ethnomusicology advisory board of the College Music Society has sponsored a panel at the 2015 CMS meeting about “public musicology.” As previously noted, I suggested that an approach to public musicology must explore the ways in which such an approach could and would develop and explore new connections.

What sorts of connections might a “public musicology” explore? From the scholarly and performance perspectives, it might recombine what some describe as the Cartesian split – the ideological distinction of mind and body; if a “public musicology” is a connective one, then we would want to join together theory and practice. We may want to join education audiences with broader public service opportunities. Connections between music and other academic spheres (sociology, anthropology We may want to connect the aural expressions we often describe as “music” to the social and cultural worlds we inhabit in other spheres of life. It would also connect research approaches, educational approaches, and performance in an integrative way. It would connect internal and external audiences. In short, a connection to audiences, and a focus on broad audiences, toward an engaged musicking in the public sphere. (Or, to be musically engaged in the public sphere.)

Thinking Public Musicology

On Thursday, a few colleagues and I will present a panel discussion on “public musicology” at the 2015 College Music Society meeting in Indianapolis. Here are my initial thoughts on what we might mean by “public musicology”:

I ended our panel abstract [see below] with a quote from the novelist E.M. Forster, “Only connect.” The phrase serves as an epigram to his novel Howard’s End (1910). In the novel, the characters living in the late Victorian era struggle with making and maintaining connections. The epigraph appears to place a positive value on making connections – at one point in the novel, Forster describes the phrase as a “sermon” to connect the prose of life with the passion so as to “live in fragments no longer.” However, the novel also explores the despair and difficulty of making such connections while the characters struggle with different issues of class, wealth, taste, and social convention. As we were discussing a potential theme for this panel, sponsored by the Ethnomusicology Advisory Council of the College Music Society, it seemed a fitting metaphor. All members of the society are doing creative outreach, diligently devoted to their performances, teaching, and other aspects of their work, and it is sometimes difficult to see where and the connections between the exceedingly rich and varied activities of our CMS can be made. We therefore wanted to join together some of the recent insights, from the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major, to the challenges of dialogue between the various disciplines that come together in CMS, and also to the currently vibrant work in public scholarship, including work happening at the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as others engaged in what some have described as “alt-ac” careers.

You may know that this is not unexplored territory, so the job of the panel is not to define what public musicology might be but rather to explore and elucidate various approaches that might fall within this rubric. Feedback and thoughts are welcome!

The panel is described as follows:

From folk festivals to orchestra concerts, music is inescapably a social and public phenomenon; and from music bloggers to popular performers, musicians are public figures. Yet, the voice of scholars and musicians has often not connected beyond the academy. This panel discussion will explore approaches to “public musicology” – that is, making musical knowledge open, accessible, and available beyond the academic and classroom spheres – from perspectives of scholars, performers, and teachers.  Music is more present than ever – via digital delivery to personal music players; from greater diversity of musical styles and crossovers pushed by increasing global flows of culture, trade, and media; and through massive, open, online courses with lengthy menus of musical offerings. We consider the promise of these avenues while acknowledging some of the difficulties and accompanying challenges.  We ask: How can we train our students to be active in more public spaces through engaging scholarship and performances?  What is our role making musical knowledge, understanding, and appreciation more accessible and open to new audiences and what are the best techniques for doing so? What venues, formats, and spaces, including digital platforms, provide the most compelling “interfaces” for engagement? How can we make our music studies resonate with the musical and cultural realities beyond academia?   We follow Forster’s injunction to “only connect” by bringing together these varied voices and encouraging dialogue among the audience to share related projects and commentary.

Just Engage


Another Blackboard rant: everything in Blackboard that one creates for students is tied to grading. For example, the disappearing dropbox mentioned in my last post has been “converted” to an assignments. (Converted is just a nice way of saying it no longer has the option, I guess.) Ditto for the wiki. I want a wiki in my class to allow collaboration, organization, and quick notetaking. The Blackboard “wiki” offers none of those, and again it’s tied to grading. What if you just want a space where collaboration and participation can happen? Look for it somewhere else.

Google Searches Just Don’t Cover Everything

That’s right, people who are skilled in finding, accessing, and sifting through information to find out what’s useful are still important. Often we call them librarians, sometimes archivists, keepers, guides, or just plain old smart people. Yesterday, the Weekend All Things Considered Host Arun Rath ended the Sunday edition with a salute to reference librarians NPR’s, through a tribute to NPR’s reference librarian, Kee Malesky (retiring at the end of the year). In the tribute, Arun describes how reference librarians, even in the age of Google, have proved helpful. In short, it’s about information retrieval in a sea of haphazardly organized digital information that we call the Web.

Librarians: The Original Search EngineIt is refreshing to hear this from a non-librarian, even if it is on NPR. Speaking as a journalist, Arun observes, “ever since Google became a verb, I don’t think people appreciate the power of a skilled librarian.” “Believe it or not,” he continues, “Google searches just don’t cover everything.” As an example, he describes the challenge of finding correct pronunciations of names and places, a frequent need for radio journalists, which he says Kee has been instrumental in finding and communicating. To hear the editorial, you have to cue up the player at the following link to about 8:13:

Audio from NPR Weekend All Things Considered from Sunday, December 29, 2013 (click to 8:13). The clip is not pulled out separately on the show page, but you can also listen to (and read) the final music segment here.

A recent post on Hack Library School characterized the librarian’s relationship with Google as “best frenemies forever.” Taking a somewhat different slant, the author there calls for “librarians” to “think long and hard about what it is that Google doesn’t provide. Rath’s editorial opens up a few more areas in which reference librarians, particularly those in the news and private sector, provide essential, and Google-complementary, services in the age of networked information.

A Sociology of Organology

“How,” asks Kartomi, “do musical instruments reflect the musical thoughts of society?”

What if you asked how musical instruments shape (not just reflect) the musical thoughts (and actions) of a society?

It is possibly a seed for a more sociological approach. It is, potentially, more akin to actor-network theory and implies some role for objects themselves. What are an instrument’s affordances?

Kartomi, Margaret. 1990. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Postsocialist Realism

We live in a world of many kinds of realism, some magical, some socialist, some capitalist, and some that are yet to be named. These generic realisms have their provinces of origin: magical realism in Latin American fiction in the past two decades; socialist realism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s; and capitalist realism, a term coined by Michael Schudson (1984), in the visual and verbal rhetoric of contemporary American advertising.[1]

I’ve recently been going over some old field notes regarding the culture of postsocialism in the Czech Republic. I came across an interesting reflection regarding commercialism and advertising.

Communist party billboard in Brno, 2006

A billboard advertising “attainable living” (if you voted for the Communist Party) in 2006, but someone has added “in a panelák,” which suggests not that much changed. The beautiful young things, however, are certainly part of the commercialist realist section of an ad agency’s stock photo collection, are they not?

“Capitalist realism,” I thought to myself, “That’s an interesting concept. Funny.” Then I kept reading. Then I left my apartment and saw a billboard with a tanned, scantily clad couple on a tropical beach; underneath it was an ad from a bank for car loans—“Think you can’t afford a new car? Every second driver has loaned money from us. No credit checks.”—; further down the street, a gigantic advertisement for Alfa Romeo luxury racecars covered the side of a building; under it was a small ad for a tanning salon; next door was an appliance store selling washing machines and refrigerators of an Austrian manufacture—“get a free 24-pack of beer when you buy a large refrigerator; payment plans available.” Every day I see glossy annual reports and billboards from banks and investment companies with fit, happy, people enjoying themselves and their bottomless bank accounts; there are happy ladies on posters at the pharmacy declaring the great things about the wonders of hair dyes and weight loss medications. And suddenly I had a new way to articulate some of the things that I wish hadn’t come along with the fall of communism and the advent of capitalism. I can see the attractions of this commercial realism, yet I can’t help wondering about how much of a difference exists between the square and spiky modern steel and glass apartment blocks and the paneláks (the Communists’ answer to the housing shortage).

Are these new office blocks so much better? Are they any less than sleeker and more comfortable versions of the old “rabbit hutch” model? Isn’t it just old wine in new bottles? What’s different but an illusion of “freedom” more visible outside the glass walls of the apartment? Most people are just as beholden to and entrapped in the quest for a comfortable life as the next person. This “comfortable life” is the Czech euphemism for adequate wealth to lead life as good as possible with the least amount of work, which is what a lot of people in a lot of places want. (Of course, there are a lot of people in a lot of places who fight tooth and nail for it, as well, because they don’t want the “adequate” amount but just more, more, more.)

The new office blocks are physical anchors for the strands of culture that, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, we ourselves have spun. The whole of all those strong little binding strands that give us an illusion of security that constrict as much as support our actions. These strands may look different in the twentieth century (glossier, more youthful, more consumerist, and certainly more corporate), but I can’t stop wondering whether their substance of those strands has really changed.

This was probably written around the time I posted about Brno’s new office park a while ago. Of note, the entire office park that I was writing about is slated to be completed in 2012 (i.e., right about now).

1Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 53 (emphasis mine).

Happy Birthday, Culture Hero!

As we perform this national ritual of homage to our ancestors, I’ve been thinking of Horace Miner’s study of the “Nacirema.” He published an early study of the group and noted the major figure whom we recognize today. In Miner’s words,

The culture of this people [the Nacirema] is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength-the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

I remember a high school sociology teacher who brought Miner’s study in for class discussion. It took a while for us to realize what was going on. If you’re not in on the joke, just remember: the Nacirema are a backwards people.

Read the whole article: Horace Miner, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” American Anthropologist 58, no. 3 (June 1956): 503–507.