Sound Matters Debut

The Society for Ethnomusicology announced today the inauguration of its official blog, Sound Matters. I guess that ethnomusicology has reached 2005? But seriously, it’s great to see a more quick-moving, vibrant, and publicly-accessible avenue for publishing engaging materials about music in all its forms. We’re seeing more public, digital music projects like this that have scholarly imprimatur but lean to the accessible, like “From the Field” and “Blogging Ethnomusicology.” I’m glad to see SEM’s continuing support for this sort of work.

Music word cloud by EJ Poselius, generated by Wordle

Here’s the announcement circulated on the SEM listservs:

The Society for Ethnomusicology is pleased to announce the launch of Sound Matters: The SEM Blog. Hosted on the SEM website, the blog offers content on a variety of subjects related to music, sound, and ethnomusicology. SEM seeks lively and accessible posts that provide both stimulating short-form reading for ethnomusicologists and outreach to readers beyond the academy. We encourage authors to consider this forum a unique opportunity to transcend the boundaries of traditional print journals with brief works that integrate hyperlinks and multimedia examples. All content will be peer-reviewed.

The inaugural post for Sound Matters is “From Scholarship to Activism in Zimbabwe,” by Jennifer Kyker of the University of Rochester. In this multimedia document, Professor Kyker examines how music and dance are critical to the work of a non-profit organization in Zimbabwe called Tariro, which supports education for teenaged girls and HIV/AIDS prevention.

One can’t help a very brief review: they could have devised a prettier URL pattern, I don’t see any prominent space to track pingbacks or other sharing (though comments appear to be allowed), and the ShareThis widget’s buttons at the bottom of the posts could use a bit of tweaking (currently no tumblr, wordpress, or other share options appear immediately when I viewed the page, but this could be influenced by my cookies). Otherwise, this looks like a great project off to an auspicious start under the able advisement of a great team of editorial advisors including a representative from RILM’s Bibliolore.

Bon voyage!

First From the Field

Bibliolore links to the first “From the Field” feature produced by the Society for Ethnomusicology and Smithsonian Folkways. The first installment of the series, by Jonathan Ritter, discusses protest songs and memory at a carnival in the Peruvian Andes. Read it in full here.

Photo by Jonathan Ritter

Photo by Jonathan Ritter

The post is first in a series, as Bibliolore writes, which will present “recent ethnomusicological field research to a general audience. Reports combine audio and video recordings, photographs, and narrative to explore music-making and social issues at locales around the world.”

I look forward to future installments!

Music, the Ultimate Rebel Yell?

This is not the first time musicians around the world have faced punishing consequences for being rebellious.

7 members of Pussy Riot, courtesy of wikimedia

In light of the events surrounding Pussy Riot in Russia, NPR Music’s Elizabeth Blair reports on other musicians who have voiced unpopular political opinions. It’s an excellent illustration of the political aspects of music and song. In an interview with Afropop‘s Banning Eyre, focused on the music of Thomas Mapfumo, Blair observes:

The two year jail sentence for the members of the band Pussy Riot might seem extreme to people in the U.S. where musicians are protected under freedom of speech. But this is not the first time musicians around the world have faced punishing consequences for being rebellious.

Read the full story at NPR’s The Record: Music as the Ultimate Rebel Yell

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?


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

Link

http://media.mtvnservices.com/embed/mgid:cms:video:colbertnation.com:410256

The Colbert Report
Click the above link to watch the video.

An appearance by Don Fleming, archivist of the Alan Lomax collection at the Association for Cultural Equity, plus Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello. It’s not often that sound archives, or archivists for that matter, get such high profile media attention. The ACE has just made 17,000+ recordings recordings by the Lomaxes available to stream from their Website. (Related materials from the ACE’s Global Jukebox were recently covered by the NYTimes here.)

Myth or Merit?

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Is the reputation of famous musical instruments a myth, or do some exceptional instruments just sound better? Legendary Stradivarius violins have been the subject of almost mythological interest. Last year, the recovery of a “missing” Strad sparked interest in London. This brought up many of the peculiarities of musical instruments as objects. While “a violin” is a more or less run-of-the-mill musical instrument, “a Strad” is worth millions and considered to be irreplaceable. (Though not necessarily impossible to replicate.)

So, what are Strads so expensive? Are Stradivarius violins “better” than other violins? Do particular musical instruments have intrinsic, special characteristics that cannot be recreated on any others? These complex questions have been subject to long debate and are the topic of an article by Daniel Wakin in the NYTimes this weekend. Wakin describes the “Strad wars,” which pit the true believers (the players and the owners) against the skeptics (particularly violin makers and players who are not benefiting from a wealthy patron’s largesse) in a “long-running debate over whether the enormous worth of such instruments is rooted in myth or merit.” Although there are powerful ideas about wealth, prestige, and status that make playing a venerated object “valuable,” Wakin also points out that while the “mystique” of the great violin has been subject to profound scrutiny, “it remains powerful in our increasingly digitized and disposable world, where 300-year-old wood objects used to express deep emotion seem ever more precious.” In other words, if the digital world is more ephemeral, something about an ancient wooden instrument has automatic appeal.

A useful FAQ has been made available by acoustics researchers at the University of New South Wales, which takes up the question “What is the ‘secret of Stradivarius’?” They point to a number of complicating factors in answering such a question, notably the highly individual skills and approaches that vary between players. Moreover, since Strads have been used to define optimum sound for multiple generations of players, these instruments have come to more or less define good violins. Would it be possible to do better if they are the standard? Finally, despite what Wakin points out in the article (that these instruments are 300 years old), every surviving Stradivarius and other old master has been extensively rebuilt over the years to the extent that no living person or player really knows what a Stradivarius “really” sounded like. The UNSW lab also points to other studies that have investigated the varnish of the instruments and other theories that have been advanced to explain the Stradivarius phenomenon. (Read their statements here.)

Gates of Justice

Each year the U. of Michigan holds a symposium in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In lieu of class, students are encouraged to attend events ranging from lectures to community service. In honor of MLK day this year, this short documentary about the 2001 recording session of Dave Brubeck’s oratorio The Gates of Justice (1969). The oratorio mixes jazz harmonies, African-American spirituals, Jewish cantorial singing, and orchestral music in a commemoration of freedom and justice. You get a sample if you watch the clip:

The rare 2001 recording of Gates of Justice was funded by the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Of the work, they write,

The Gates of Justice was composed during the tense atmosphere of the post-Civil Rights Era to help ease the enmity between Jewish and African Americans, but for Dave Brubeck the work’s message is much more universal. As he notes in this video, “this world could really disappear on us unless we really get down to believing in the original meaning of all the great religions and the brotherhood of man.”

Also of interest were Wynton Marsalis’s performance and words on today’s CBS This Morning.

Archives Relief, West Africa

The BAPMAF archives (Bokoor African Popular Music Archive Foundation) in Accra, Ghana were flooded on October 26 of this year. The damage appears to be serious, and a plea for financial support has been circulating via email, blog, twitter, etc. John Collins, the archives founder, state on 10 November: “As you may know I have been operating the BAPMAF music archives since 1990 which was partly opened at my Bokoor House to the public in 1996 and more fully in 2007. However, devastation struck in the middle of the night of 26th Oct 2011 in the form of a flood. . . . The resulting flooding on the 26 Oct was unprecedented with almost 6 feet of water entering our land and 5 feet into the downstairs house and premises where some of the BAPMAF archival holdings are kept.” It is estimated that 10 to 20% of the archives holdings were damaged or destroyed, including all electronic equipment. Further illustrations of the damage were posted by the Afropop blog on November 19—if you have any doubt as to the extent, have a look at the photos!

If you are able to help, monetary donations can be made via Paypal. Information is given at the AfroPop post above, and via the BAPMAF Facebook page.

Further information about the BAPMAF project and its collaboration with Africa House at NYU can be found at the BAPMAF collection page.

Instruments in Museums

A klezmer exhibit at the MIM.

The MIM klezmer exhibit.

A couple weeks ago now, NPR ran a short piece that featured the Musical Instrument Museum (the MIM). Ted Robbins quotes director Bill DeWalt noting that the museum is, ironically, “one of the most quiet museums you’ll ever be in.” The reason is that the sound samples illustrating the instruments are heard on headphones. This is the trend in musical museums, I believe, and it matches what I experienced five years ago at the Czech Museum of Music in Prague. Headphones and digital files are certainly one of the amazing technologies that offer a better experience to musical instrument museums!

Last year, when the MIM opened, however, Edward Rothstein was a bit more critical in his New York Times review. Comparing the museum to a “department store” because of its size and architecture, the criticism seemed to be that the collection is too large and lacks a focus in display:

Think of instruments, too, as a kind of raw material that you are confronted with as you walk through the expansive exhibit spaces of this $250 million museum. It is material that the institution celebrates, promotes and sometimes illuminates, and it makes the museum of immediate interest. But the possibilities, for now, are more compelling than the achievements.

Though I saw the museum before its exhibits were fully mounted (and obtained images, text and plans for what was missing), the impact of this institution is in its size, nerve and astonishing quality and character of parts of its collection. But it seems unfinished in ways that should be examined.

In any case, I want to go to the museum, and I encourage anybody in Phoenix to check it out! Have you been? What do you think?

The Musical Instrument Museum is at 4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix; (480) 478-6000; themim.org.

Three Friday Musings

“It’s now taken for granted that the things we do online are reflections of who we are or announcements of who we wish to be.” Yet, “what we do online still feels somehow novel and ephemeral, although it really shouldn’t anymore” (writes Rob Walker in the NYTimes).

Yet, writes Sherry Turkle, “Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up.” But it’s still developing. There’s also the evocative nature of computers and digital tech: we feel that they means more than the sum of their individual parts, in fact creating emotional connections (and not just addictions). (Listen to her interview on Here and Now.)

And while looking around the blog, imagine my surprise when I noticed that there’s more than just my blog listed on the wordpress tag page for idiophones (cue: Hornbostel-Sachs rejoicing). Most fun, though, are the Hang videos from Dante Bucci, like this “Fanfare”: