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On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Is Western Culture an Illusion?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/14/06 at 11:23 AM

Sometime between ten and twenty years ago I was casually chatting with David Hays, friend, colleague, and mentor, and asked, “in what sense is American culture a kind of Western culture? What are the general features that mark a culture as Western and what special features distinguish American culture from other varieties of Western culture, say Canadian, or Italian, or Finnish?” He thought the questions rather peculiar, as did I. That’s why I asked them.

And yet we talk about things like Western culture and African culture and Oriental culture and Mexican and Indonesian culture as though they are meaningful designations. We certainly endow them with a heavy burden of geopolitical meaning. But I’m not at all sure they’re meaningful categories for cultural analysis. I rather suspect that, as they’re currently used, they’re useless; whether they can be made descriptively and analytically meaningful, I don’t know.

My thinking on this issue is bound up with my efforts to understand the role of African American music in America’s musical culture, but it has more general implications. Here’s a short piece I first published to the web over a decade ago.


If African-American Music Isn’t Western,
What is It
and Who are We?

Western culture began to fall apart on me when I decided to write about the impact of African-American musical culture on American music. It is clear that African-American music owes a substantial debt to Africa. It is also clear that African-American music has had a dominating influence on American music in general. By applying a familiar syllogistic mechanism to those propositions one can see that American music is indebted to Africa. That it is, in some measure, African. So far so good.

However, music is not an autonomous cultural process or product. It expresses the values, attitudes, and strategies of the society in which it functions. Thus behind the question of the relationship between African musical culture and American musical culture is the larger and more general question of the relationship between African culture and American culture. If, through African-American music, African music has been driving American music, then is it also the case the African culture has been driving American culture? And if that is the case, how far has the process gone? Given that African cultures are not Western cultures, has the process gone so far that American culture should no longer be considered Western? Just how much African culture can American culture absorb before it ceases to be fundamentally Western in nature?

Let us begin with the relatively concrete question of whether or not African-American music is Western music. Some authorities clearly think it is. Thus, in Music of the Common Tongue (1987), Christopher Small (p. 4) asserts that

...the Afro-American tradition is the major music of the west in the twentieth century, of far greater significance than those remnants of the great European classical tradition that are to be heard today in the concert halls and opera houses of the industrial world, east and west.

Small will go on to argue that African-American music carries values which are at odds with the dehumanizing industrial cast of European and American society and that those values are good and important. More recently, and from a more conservative location in the political universe, Marsha Bayles has also claimed Afro-American music for the West (Hole in Our Soul, 1994 p.22):

I realize that a great many musicians and writers will reject the proposition that Afro-American music is an idiom of Western music, on the grounds that it is, root and branch, totally “black,” meaning African. This attitude is usually called “cultural nationalism,” but I prefer to call it “cultural separatism,” because, instead of Affirming Afro-American music by sharing it with the world, it takes a jealously proprietary stance.

Bayles will go on to argue that the virtues which African-American music has brought to the world are being threatened by decadence which began at the turn of the century and has become frightfully pervasive in our own time. Both recognize that African-American music is quite different from classical music and European folk musics in its devices and emotional tenor. But neither of them see this as a reason for thinking the music is not Western.

I find this situation most curious. For it seems to me that if Western music is defined in such a way that it is home to both Ludwig van Beethoven (19th C. European classical) and Charlie Parker (African-American, bebop jazz) , to J. S. Bach (18th C. European classical) and Bessie Smith (African-American, blues), then it is not entirely clear to me whether or not Western music should not also encompass the sitar playing of Ravi Shankar (North Indian classical) and the singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Sufi devotional song from Pakistan) as well. And if we admit them into the fold, can any music reasonably be excluded? But what purpose (beyond that old devil, cultural imperialism) could possibly be served by a conceptual scheme which sees much, perhaps most, possibly even all, of the world’s music as Western?

We need to think about just what is going on when we make such classifications, a very tricky business. To that end, let’s step back a minute and imagine that we are Martian ethnomusicologists. Our electronic devices have detected music from all the Earth’s cultures but somehow have failed to pick up any other information. So, we have recordings of a great deal of music and no information whatsoever about where exactly that music came from or whatever else is going on there. We know the beings producing this music must have some kind of culture, but the music itself is all we know about those cultures. We know nothing about the geographical distribution and history of those cultures. Our job is to listen to all this music and develop a classification system.

How likely is it that we will place the music of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart into the same class? Not very likely. What about the music of Mozart and Hayden? Yes. And that of Ellington and William “Count” Basie? Again, yes. Ravi Shankar and Ellington? No. Ravi Shankar and Mozart? And again, no. By making such comparisons it seems to me that a Martian ethnomusicologist would be likely, at some given level in the taxonomy, to put Ravi Shankar in one category, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in another category, Yacub Addy (traditional music of the Ga people in Ghana) in another, Mozart in a category different from the first three, and Ellington in a category different from the first three. It seems very unlikely, however, that Ellington and Mozart would end up in the same category, even one different form the other three. They would be in different categories from one another.

Now, in making these judgments I am imagining that Martian ethnologists would classify music on the basis of its techniques and devices. A classification system which says that a Beethoven composition and a Charlie Parker improvisation are the same kind of thing is going to have difficulty excluding much of the music which heretofore had been regarded as non-Western. These two musics have a very different rhythmic feel, and differ in the degree to which they emphasize rhythmic elaboration. They also differ in the scales they employ, their characteristic forms of ornamentation, their harmonic techniques, and large-scale structural devices. If we then assert the Beethoven’s choice of scale pitches represents the same musical principle as Parker’s choices, we may well have to include Ravi Shankar’s choice of scale pitches in this same class. Either that, or decide that our classification system will not attempt to be a rational one. But a classification system which is arbitrary has no conceptual value; it tells us nothing about the world. If the world is, in fact, a random confluence of forces and events, then an arbitrary classification system will do just fine. But if the world were so arbitrary, we wouldn’t be here trying to puzzle out its order.

What we want of a classification system is that it places similar things into the same category and dissimilar things into different categories, that it recognize what philosophers call natural kinds). Let’s consider perfectly ordinary “folk” classification of animals. Dogs, cats, cows, and giraffes are similar in that they have four limbs (and walk over land on them), a head and a tail, and are covered in fur; call them “beasts”. Hummingbirds, vultures, wrens, and parrots are covered with feathers, have two legs, two wings (which they use for air transport), a head and a tail; call them “birds”. Birds are different from beasts and we expect that any animal classified as a beast will resemble other beasts more than it resembles any bird. In this classification system bats are a bit problematic: Are they flying beasts or fur-covered birds? Such cases are annoying, but annoyance is OK as long as it doesn’t become a way of life. When the number of annoying cases is considerably less than the number of obvious ones we can live with it. Only when the number of annoying cases gets to be rather large must we begin to question the logic of the classification system.

Now consider a classification of animals that has parrots and giraffes in the same class; call them borogoves. Are vultures and dogs borogoves as well? What if it turns out that while vultures and gnats are to be considered borogoves, dogs, sturgeon, hummingbirds and wrens are considered to be toves? Thus we have:

BOROGOVES: parrots, giraffes, vultures, gnats
TOVES: dogs, sturgeon, hummingbirds, wrens

What is the difference between a tove and a borogove? What do all toves have in common? What do all borogoves have in common? What is the rational principle behind this classification system? Perhaps it is not too difficult to find one--I leave that as an exercise for the reader, who no doubt has access to the appropriate volumes in Borges’ well-known Library of Babel. But, can that principle, whatever it is, be reasonably extended to cover the same domain as that covered by beasts and birds and do half as well? That is the kind of problem we invite when we include J. S. Bach and Thelonius Monk within the fold of Western music while trying to exclude Ravi Shankar. I do not think that Ravi Shankar’s music, excellent though it is, should be included in Western music. It’s devices are too different. By the same reasoning, I think Thelonius Monk should be excluded from Western music as well.

This all seems obvious enough and yet it seems not to have occurred to Christopher Small, Marsha Bayles, and, probably to many others as well. Since I don’t know either of them I am in no position to say just why such reasoning has not occurred to them. But I would guess it hasn’t occurred to them because they take the concepts of “the West” and “Western Culture” at face value. We all know what the Western nations are and what Western Culture is and that is that. As the United States is a Western nation, and African-American music originated within that Western nation, it follows that African-American music is Western. If we think about it a bit we may even conclude that the chain of reasoning I have just characterized as “obvious enough” is at least as odd as it is obvious.

For that chain of reasoning treats all but treats the concept of Western Culture like a taxonomic category in biological classification. As such, “Western Culture” would surely be a high-level taxonomic category covering various lower-level categories such as “French”, “Canadian”, “Swedish”, “Greek” and “Portuguese.” While that seems true enough, it also seems strange. We may think of Greece and Canada as Western nations, but we don’t really think of their cultures as being varieties of Western culture in the way that oak and ginkgo are varieties of tree. We think of trees as having certain properties--brownish trunks, a branching structure, greenish leaves, and so forth--and oak and ginkgo possess those general properties plus differentiating properties specific to each, a particular shade and texture of bark, a particular range of branch angles, leaves of a certain color and shape, and so forth (this is inheritance in the sense discussed in the next section). We do not generally, however, think of Western culture as having certain general properties while Greek and Canadian culture have those general properties plus specific differentiating properties.

This situation gets odder when we realize that biological taxonomy implies genetic relationships. To think of Western culture as being analogous to a higher-level biological taxon would thus imply that French, Canadian, Swedish, Greek, and Portuguese culture are all descended from the same ancestral “proto-Western” culture. What would that ancestral culture be? That question seems deeply odd. Those cultures are surely Western cultures, but we don’t really think of them as descending from a common ancestor—though ancient Greece and Israel are often invoked in this connection. Certainly, their histories intersect through common geopolitical forces, but that is not the same thing has having a common ancestor.

So, where does this leave us? It is tempting to treat this issue as mere semantics. Having recognized a linguistic problem, we isolate it, agree to use various words and concepts more carefully, and the problem disappears. In the case of African-American music we could, for example, agree to give it sui generis status, suggesting that it has so thoroughly absorbed and transformed its various Western and African sources that it cannot be subordinated to either of those sources. I rather like this approach; I would be willing to argue it in considerable detail; and I suspect that Small could live with it, for the substance of his arguments--who played what music and when, the values inherent in this music or that, and so forth--don’t much depend on the specific scope of Western Culture. Nor does Bayles’s argument. However, she seems more committed to an ideological identification with something she calls, in common parlance, the West, and might have trouble with the notion that the music she so loves is not Western. And she would certainly have difficulty with my suggestion that American culture, in general, is no longer Western, though that suggestion, whatever it implies about where the culture has come from and where it might be going, obviously doesn’t change the principles and practices of the culture.

It is Bayles’s ideological commitment to “the West” that is troublesome, though, of course, it is not just Bayles’s ideological commitment that I’m concerned about. The “culture wars” about cultural canons, curriculum content, the evils and vicissitudes of Eurocentricity, and the multitude of other X-centricities (where “X” is a variable standing for some ethnic group) which accompany multi-culturalism, assume cultural essences which are treated as though they are carried in the blood. These commitments have force in the mundane world where they influence what is taught to our children, how people and their representatives vote, and, in too many cases, who bears arms against whom.

These culture wars are serious business. But if “the West” proves to be, upon further analysis, a shaky notion, then are these wars about anything at all or are these folks fighting simply because they need to fight? If we aren’t Western, then what are we?


Comments

Bill, you raise interesting questions here.  One way of thinking about them that’s different from your more taxonomic approach is to bring in the issue of the cultural field of production here.

Let’s take “the blues.” Fact is, there were no “blues musicians” at the start of blues music.  There were itinerant musicians, black and white, with vast repertories of songs: folk, country, comic, blues, Tin Pan Alley pop and other genres that didn’t seem to matter much to these early performers or the audiences.  Leadbelly and Charley Patton are excellent examples here.

So, some of this music contained elements traceable to African music.  But the cultural field of production and dissemination and reception—from the itinterant musician to the 78 LP to the radio broadcast to the Chitlin Circuit stage of Bessie Smith to the minstrel show—was entirely non-African.  So we have to wonder if the “cultural values” expressed by certan African musical forms in certain African social and ritual contexts carry over to these new formal arrangements performed under entirely different social and ritual conditions.  The Laclau and Mouffe answer would be to see the musical forms as yolk-able to any ideological formation.  No form or idea is inherently ideological; ideology comes into being in the specific articulation of a particular form or concept.  And one ideology a cultural form can be yoked to is nationalism or racialism: the blues as inherently African-American, the blues as inherently American, baseball as The American Sport, and so on.  Or bullfighting as democratic performance of heroic style! 

Then there’s the Benn Michaels answer.  What’s African music?  It’s music played by Africans.  If Africans play it, it’s African music; if they don’t play it, it’s no longer African music.  Ultimately, he’d probably want to get rid of the cultural adjective entirely.  Playing the blues doesn’t make you black.  It doesn’t make you American.  And you don’t play it because you’re black or American.  Playing the blues makes you a blues musician.  Just like building a wood cabinet makes you a carpenter, not Amish. 

The issue of “Western culture,” though, is really important (to state the obvious).  Groups like ACTA want a return to the teaching of “Western civilization” as if that term is obvious in its content.  What about the zero or gunpowder?  Are they part of Western civilization?  Of course, even though Westerners adapted them from other cultures (and employed them in very different cultural ways than, say, the way the Chinese used gunpowder). 

What gets really annoying, though, is when the discussion turns to “teaching THE BEST of Western Civilization.” Thus, we erase dictatorship and tyranny and fascism from Western culture and instead identify Western culture with a certain secularized Protestant individualist democratic ideology, and project tyranny and fascism and dictatorship and religious zealotry to the Darker Races.  African dictators are seen as throwbacks to primitive tribal culture rather than distinctly modern, Western-influenced forms.  Terrorism is fascist, and fascism is now Islamic and not Western (unless you’re Jonah Goldberg and you believe the American left is basically fascist and you’re an asshole).

By on 09/14/06 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The blues is certainly a good thing to talk about here. I’ve had some pretty nasty arguments in cyberspace with folks who are deeply committed to “moldy-fig” notions of blues purity—you know, it’s performed primarily by old toothless black men who can’t read or write and never heard of Gershwin or Porter, much less Mozart, etc. It turns out that the earliest known recording of a blues is by a white man, but we don’t know much about him (this is in Music Grooves). I could go on and on about that, but I won’t, at least not knew.

The zero is a most important example. Why? Because, it did not originate in ancient Greece or Israel, on the one hand, and because European merchantilism, imperialism, and the scientific revolution would have been impossible with out it. As you know, the zero is one aspect of the so-called Arabic numeral system, which originated in China and/or India (I don’t know the current scholarship on this) and was transmitted to Europe through Islam, arriving, I believe, in the 10th century CE. European merchantilism and imperialism depended on reliable long-distance navigation over open oceans. That in turn required the use of logarithm tables, the calculation of which required the Arabic numeral system. Similarly, the Arabic system was crucial for the scientific revolution.

Whether or not sense can be made of the idea of “Western” culture, it is clear that the modern Western world would have been impossible without the Arabic notation. It’s as important as Greek art and philosophy and Hebrew religion.

By Bill Benzon on 09/14/06 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A lot to talk about.

0. It’s for cases like this that I think that memes are a useful tool. Rather than saying that Afro-American music is African, American, or in some way “mixed”, it could be described in terms of elements which were originally only American (Western), those which were originally only African, and those which are shared. Furthermore, it would be possible to identify new memes which came into existence onl;y within the African-American experience, and were not present either in any African culture, nor in American culture of the non-African type.

The reason I like memes is because they are discrete (not holistic) and detachable. In the same way, it would be able to analyze Buddhism as it travelled from India to Central Asia to China to Japan in terms of the memes kept, lost, and added.

1. “Music is the universal language”. Music styles seem to cross boundaries more easily than linguistic or religious culture. For one example, the Chinese music of the last millenium was learned from the steppe peoples; the original Chinese music may be extinct. Partly because music tends to be associated with pleasure and escape, and exoticism fits. (Foods and sex objects also cross boudaries with ease.)

2. Most cultural discussions recognize hybridism when it exists—Islam in Spanish culture, Hinduism in Indonesian culture. Afro-American music has Western roots as well as African, and is listened to by people of all kinds. The idea of the “pure culture” has been both destructive and intellectually inane.

3. The specific case of Afro-American music today is a case of cultural change, partly hybridization in America, but also Americanization in Europe. In other words, “Western culture” was a more useful concept before 1900.

4. The really distinctive Western forms are political, legal, and institutional (the economy, education). This is sticky because “culture” often is specifically thought to refer to the less official, more local, more esthetic or emotional part of a way of life.  For example, some would say that Hong Kong is “culturally Chinese”, but I believe that 150 years of British law have made Hong Kong Chinese in many ways significantly different than Mainland Chinese. (They would be even more different if British law had been evenly applied in Hong Kong, as it is now to Chinese citizens in Britain).

By John Emerson on 09/14/06 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

0. Memes: Yes, this is where the meme concept can begin to earn its keep. I adopted the term in one of the articles I’ve linked to, but that was before I realized just how very much nonsense has been written under that rubric. But, yes, we really do need to begin analyzing culture into a rather large collection of quasi-independent and discrete memes. One of the interesting memes in AA music is melisma, the elaborate vocal embellishments that are particular prominent in gospel, but also show up in blues. Melisma may have made its way here through two routes. Both start in the Arab world, and one arrives here through West Africa (which has been heavily Islamic for a long time) and the other through Ireland—though I forget just how it made it’s way from, presumably, Spain to Ireland.

1. Yes, music travels well. Charlie Keil has noticed a tendency for complex cultural areas to vest the most potent music in exotic internal Others. In America we’ve got symphonic Jews, operatic Italians, and funky-soulful Blacks, etc.

2. I think hybridism is the norm for culture. That is to say, when you look at the memetic repertoire of significant groups, it will almost always consist of inheritance from several-many different lines.

3. I figure “Western culture” is most usefully applied between, say, 1400 CE and, yes, 1900 CE.

4. A provisional “yes” on the distinctive “Western” forms—I’ve not really tried to think it through.

By Bill Benzon on 09/14/06 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d like to see a study of how blue the blue notes are when different sorts of musicians play. I have a distinct feeling that rock musicians tend play less blue and more standard intonation.

This probably wouldn’t be a black-white thing. More a thing of how well people listen.

By John Emerson on 09/14/06 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have always seen Jazz as western music, or part of the western musical tradition, because it is, by and large, based entirely on western harmonic ideas which is probably the only invariant tying all of the classical composers together anyhow. The culture of jazz creation is significantly different from the classical tradition, but if you were to compare a transcript of Monk and Coltrane with a Ravel piece for piano and violin there would be more similarities than your essay leads me to assume that you believe exist. Jazz musicians are very much using the same tools as Stravinsky and Bach. Stravinsky wrote jazz band music and Bach sounds like jazz if it is played in a certain way.

Indian classical music is much more difficult to notate, is rooted in scales that are not seen as derived from twelve tone scales, uses different harmonic devices and has developed outside of the body of western tradition. The same goes for east asian and african music, at least some of it, chinese pop music is very much in the western tradition.

By on 09/14/06 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is more to music than harmonic practice, way more.

By Bill Benzon on 09/14/06 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Music is the universal language.

Correctio: Music is the universal language...of madness..

Given that Music is the universal language...of madness, some forms of musical madness are quite superior to others: for as the madness of say a Reichmarshall Goering surpasses the madness of, er, Idi Amin, so does the musical madness of a Wagner surpass that of , say, Duke Ellington . To the naive, or merely sensual, music appeals to emotion primarily, or titillates: a sax solo or dervish’s chant then sort of equivalent to a drug ; to the more seasoned listener, Beethoven’s 7th symphony is more akin to being in a cathedral or understanding complex series of equation, and as multi-variate calculus is to arithmetic so are the great composers to dervishes.  Less is ~more.

By on 09/14/06 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The blue notes in jaz or the blues go outside standard western intonation. 

The rhythm sections are far different. Compare a continuo (baroque)or an Alberti bass (Mozart) to anything in jazz. in the way they moves. Or compare the use of percussion. Even the relative rhythmic adventurousness starting at the end of the XIXc seems stiff and impoverished compared to almost any jazz.

Chesterton, seriously, back on your meds. You’ve been pretty nice recently, up till now.

By John Emerson on 09/14/06 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, your point about blue notes reminds me of an argument I had with a professor in grad school.  We were discussing Paul Gilroy’s reminder in *The Black Atlantic* that “black culture” is a set of practices anyone can imitate.  The professor took issue with this, saying she could always tell a black jazz piano player from a white jazz piano player.  I didn’t doubt she could, but as she and I went back and forth, we came to the conclusion that what she could hear was “church” in the black piano player.  This makes sense: while both black and white jazz players today have access to jazz, rock, and classical recordsings, very few white people have the same degree of access to black church piano styles (which are far less documented on disc).

By on 09/14/06 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seriously, you need meds when putting up Bach or Beethoven or Debussy next to 95% of jazz. Adorno may have been wrong about many things, but he wasn’t entirely mistaken in his comments on jazz and popular music as hyper-individualist and a type of bogus freedom.  The sentimental liberal dream of some cultural equality has lead to like Like Water for Chocolate replacing Shakespeare in writing classes, and Count Basie replacing Bach in the music curriculum.

By on 09/14/06 at 08:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Where’s the 95% come from? I’ve never said anything about all jazz. Adorno knew very little about jazz and was a bigoted advocate of one small musical school which he regarded as progressive. He barely was able to say anything good about Bartok or Stravinsky.

It’s easier to teach jazz musicians to play classical than it is to teach classical musicians to play jazz. Jazz is a very demanding style.

By John Emerson on 09/14/06 at 08:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some of the members of Sly Stone’s band are still playing, singing gospel at his brother’s church.

By John Emerson on 09/14/06 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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