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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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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The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

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Research proposal – Hip-Hop Pedagogy

Final paper for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Research questions

Jamie Ehrenfeld is a colleague of mine in the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. She graduated from NYU’s music education program, and now teaches music at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. Like many members of the lab, she straddles musical worlds, bringing her training in classical voice to her work mentoring rappers and R&B singers. We often talk about our own music learning experiences. In one such discussion, Jamie remarked: “I got a music degree without ever writing a song” (personal communication, April 29 2017). Across her secondary and undergraduate training, she had no opportunity to engage with the creative processes behind popular music. Her experience is hardly unusual. There is a wide and growing divide behind the culture of school music and the culture of music generally. Music educators are steeped in the habitus of classical music, at a time when our culture is increasingly defined by the music of the African diaspora: hip-hop, R&B, electronic dance music, and rock.  Continue reading