Ngoma aesthetics after apartheid

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Louise Meintjes (2017) Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brian Larkin (2008) Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dust of the Zulu

The image of Zulu men dancing, singing and drumming carries heavy symbolic weight. For black South Africans and white outsiders alike, this image represents “real” African culture, evoking a glorious warrior culture. Cultural brokers (entrepreneurs, musicians, and politicians) “wager on the warrior” (Meintjes 2017, 241) to evoke this romantic past. However, colonizers have appropriated this same image to justify the dehumanization and exploitation of African bodies for labor. Ngoma dancers themselves use the “long past” to relieve the painful burden of the immediate past, and to reach for an “undetermined future” (255), in the face of the risk of playing into colonizers’ fetishistic stereotypes. This risk is magnified when ngoma moves onto the world stage, losing its context.

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Four bars of Mozart explains everything humans like in music

I’m not arguing here that everyone loves Mozart, or that I’m about to explain what all humans enjoy all the time. But I can say with confidence that this little bit of Mozart goes a long way toward explaining what most humans enjoy most of the time. The four bars I’m talking about are these, from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

What these four bars of music demonstrate is that humans like:

  1. Repetition
  2. Breaks in the repetition
  3. Repetition of the breaks in the repetition
  4. Breaks in the repetition of the breaks in the repetition
  5. Recursive layers of patterns of breaks and repetitions

In order to prove this to you, I’m going to talk you through these eighteen notes one at a time.

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Aurality

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier (2014) Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Aurality

The nineteenth-century Colombian writing discussed by Ochoa Gautier, like Western convention generally, opposes “art” and “folk” musics. “Art” music is comprised of works created by named authors, transmitted visually via scores, and speaking to transcendent experience beyond mundane reality. The work is an autonomous object that can be considered free of context. “Folk” music is a mass of common property, transmitted orally/aurally, and is of a part with daily life. Indeed, the folk object only makes sense in its social and cultural context. The folkloric voice is authorless, and therefore lacks authority. While the aesthesis of folklore may represent an ideal of “heightened sensorial perception and emotional expressivity” (172), its anonymity and adherence to tradition limits its potential for creativity.

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Theorizing sound writing

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Theorizing Sound Writing

Deborah Kapchan, editor (2017) Theorizing Sound Writing. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

My doctoral advisor Alex Ruthmann, when evaluating some piece of technology used for music education or creation, asks: what does the technology conceal or reveal? Writing is what Foucault called a “technology of the self,” and as such, conceals and reveals as well. Sound writing is a way to transduce the ephemeral bodily experience of listening to the timelessness of the page. What does this transduction conceal? What does it reveal?

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White nationalist music in Sweden

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Benjamin Teitelbaum’s study of Nordic nationalist music could not be any more timely.

Lions of the North

Gramsci diverged from classic Marxism when he argued that shifts in the cultural sphere create the conditions for political or economic change, rather than the other way around. Since Swedish nationalists do not have enough majority appeal for electoral politics, they see better prospects in the social diffusion of ideas and cultural values, i.e. “metapolitics.”

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What is culture?

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

All of my social science professors have asked the class to define “culture” and no one is ever able to give a concise or satisfying answer. If a culture is discretely bounded and object-like, how do we understand the culture of people in borderlands, or migrants, or residents of big complicated places like New York City? Calling anthropology as “the study of culture” is not so much a description of what anthropologists do so much as it describes “the politics of inclusion whereby an author seeks to find a common underlying theme for a plethora of disciplinary projects” (Borofsky et al, 2001).

Culture Club

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Ethnomusicology and the voice

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Kane (2014) critiques Schaeffer’s notion of “reduced listening,” which ignores a sound’s referential properties and considers it independently of its causes or its meaning. Bracketing the question of whether this is even possible, is it desirable to restrict musical discourse so much by neglecting sound’s signifying properties? Kane’s critique is especially apposite when we consider the voice.

Pink Trombone

Is it possible to hear a human voice (or an instrument that sounds like one) without imagining the body that produced it? Kate Heidemann argues that when we listen to singers, we imagine ourselves having the bodily experience of producing their voice. Thus the pleasure of Aretha Franklin is the opportunity she gives us to imagine being relaxed while still producing a loud and authoritative voice.

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The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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Ethnomusicology and the body

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

It is such a strange artifact of Cartesian dualism that we have to specify experiences as being “bodily,” as if there were some other kind. It’s like specifying that a place is in the universe.

René Descartes

Blacking (1977) observes that we can understand the convention of the mind/body dichotomy as a cultural construct, a reflection of the way that capitalism divides manual and mental labor, and puts pressure on us to use our bodies in a lopsided way (see, for example, my being hunched over my computer right now.) Furthermore, the mind-body split symbolizes the left brain/right brain split. The arts require both sides of the brain, and this may be their biological function in humans: to activate both brain hemispheres and let us attain a more complete and unified consciousness.

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