Saturday, June 16, 2018

on "Afrological" and "Eurological" musical paradigms and why I'm not entirely sure I'm on board with the terms

 
Of all the diverse forms that popular music takes, hip-hop poses the greatest challenge to the Western classical habitus. Hip-hop is rapped rather than sung; it is cyclical rather than linear; it is produced rather than performed; it uses samples and other forms of intertextuality rather than valuing the “original” expression of a lone composer; it is improvisational rather than score-driven; and it originates in marginalized minority communities of low socioeconomic status rather than among aristocratic or academic elites
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Any would-be music educator who brings popular music expertise to a university will have a challenging time getting accepted. Koza (2009) describes the way that audition requirements of her university’s music education program only permit Eurological music. “Stringent and restrictive notions of what constitutes musical competence, together with narrow definitions of legitimate musical knowledge, shut out potential teachers from already underrepresented culture groups and are tying the hands of teacher educators at a time when greater diversity, both perspectival and corporeal, is needed in the music teaching pool” (85). Some popular musicians, including me, find their way into higher music education via sideways routes like music technology, where our skill sets are valued and needed. Others are musically “bilingual,” with a mastery of multiple musical codes. Those people are admirable, but it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect all music educators to be proficient in both Eurological and Afrological idioms.

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I'm cautious about the terms Afrological and Eurological for a simple reason, I am not convinced that these are avoiding foundationally racial and racist assumptions about the way sound can be organized.  There's a variety of other potential terms to delineate differences in cognitive approaches t perceiving and interpreting music as well as to composing and organizing music than stereotyped appeals to Eurological and Afrological idioms. 
 
Suppose we say that Afrological music is characterized by recurring loops that catalyze improvisational rather than strictly written-out composition?  Okay, well, figured bass from the Baroque era had this, too.  Compositional idioms in which improvisation over a set of formulaic popular bass lines and dance patterns is said to be characteristic of popular music or Afrological idioms.  Yes, but that's also true of early and middle Baroque music from the European tradition.  It's not that surprising to me that the classical music musicians (for want of a better term) who can be more open-minded about fusions with popular styles or with jazz can seem to be more steeped in Baroque music than repertoire from "the long 19th century" or steeped in German idealism. 
 
The thing that has me cautious about Afrological and Eurological is that I'm not convinced that some of the shorthand definitions about what makes Afrological music different from Eurological music is actually the case.  Early and middle Baroque music had not yet formalized the major/minor tonal distinctions of what is sometimes called the common practice period in Western literate music.  Thanks to biases in European and American musical pedagogy the odds that music students would ever get to go through a treatise on figured bass/thorough bass by Mattheson as an undergrad is zero or very close to zero.  It may even be that one of the reasons European musical pedagogy is more open to fusions with popular/vernacular styles could be because they have institutional traditions that preserved the improvisation-over-popular-ground-bass literature of the Baroque era in such a way that they can see that jazz and popular musics have revived idioms that fell out of favor in the long 19th century; American musical pedagogy, striving to catch up with or participate in 19th century ideals of European high art music, never had that body of literature to rediscover because there's no equivalent of a Mattheson treatise on figured bass in Anglo-American musical pedagogy, perhaps. 
 
Even on the matter of sampling and intertextuality these are not necessarily concepts that are alien to Baroque music.  If sampling is thought of as accessing ready-made well-known fragments or whole melodies existing within local musical culture than sampling in the Baroque era could be observed in something like the chorale fugue.  Intertextuality could be a fantasy on a well-known hymn in which understanding the traditional text and tune of a hymn would be important to understanding the intended affect of the work.  Fusions of disparate styles into a cohesive whole was also a known and admired approach in Baroque aesthetics. 
 
All of which is to suggest that the beauty of American Afrological music is Afrological in whatever ways someone like Hein might suggest, but that if you look at what the long 19th century gutted from Eurological theory and practice in music that in some way is vital to the Afrological vernacular idioms, one of the appeals for European and some American audiences steeped in Baroque idioms is that African American popular compositional approaches did not so much invent their respective elements of improvisation over loops (as if whites or blacks could be thought of as having sole credit for inventing a range of techniques and ideas the others couldn't) as reintroduced them into Western contexts after a century of pedagogical high culture attempted to expunge these practices and theories from formal musical pedagogy, so to speak. 
 
When Adorno lambasted Stravinsky's approach to composition in Philosophy of New Music he asserted that there are two polarities within music in the Western idiom. There's a linear-dynamic tradition and a spatial-rhythm tradition.  One derives from song and the other derives from dance and while the "best" music in the Western tradition from Bach to Mahler had some dynamic balance between one mode of compositional activity and the other, Stravinsky went all in for the pulse-pounding mob-governing dance-based beat of the spatial-rhythmic approach to music, music that was designed to obliterate a subjective sense of self in some kind of mob activity that reached back to a kind of prehistoric identity obliterating groove.  Adorno wasn't even addressing music by black musicians from American in making such a polemic but he argued that music anchored entirely in the spatial-rhythmic paradigm with no referent to the linear-dynamic paradigm was capitulating to fascist impulses, mob activity and the subject-erasing paradigm of the culture industry that churned out song after song.
 
Still another way to describe different paradigms within the allegedly Eurological approach is George Rochberg's distinction between a time-space and a space-time.  The time-space is more suited to a "narrative" or a "drama" in which a linear developmental-formal process brackets out identifiable themes and their development.  Space-time can be thought of more as characteristic of soundscapes by Xenakis or Varese in which time is relative to the perceptual existence of sonic elements in a kind of three-dimensional sonic world that can be perceived by an audience member listening to a soundscape.  Rhythm and sonority as distinct, identifiable elements without respect to a "narrative" becomes more prominent in this kind of listening experience and some conservatives and traditionalists of the Western musical pedagogy scene won't even grant that this approach can even be called music.  I'm not that kind of sort myself. 
 
Whether in Adorno's polemics against Stravinsky or Rochberg's attempt to distinguish between a Varese soundscape and a Beethoven string quartet the demarcation of "time space" from "space time"; the linear-dynamic from the spatial-rhythmic in strictly intra-"Eurological" polemics in 20th century European score-based music makes it seem difficult to treat the Afrological and Eurological distinctions as being all that firm or clear even just from within the ostensibly Eurological side of the would-be nomenclature.  
 
Nor, for that matter, can an honest musical historiography take altogether seriously the proposal that improvisation, circular/cyclical grooves, reliance on dance, or inter-textual re-appropriation of known existing musical material is not in the "Eurological" musical history any less than what would be described as "Afrological" music-making.  It would seem that these approaches to composition, musical philosophy and aesthetics exist across segments of the ostensibly Eurological and Afrological paradigms.  It's one of a variety of reasons why I'm not sure these terms are historically or culturally useful beyond a possible race-baiting narrative that I don't think we need.  As someone who's legacy is a combination of Native American and white parentage I'm just not seeing that the reductive narrative of white and black is necessarily where we want to go here.  I live on the West Coast so even in terms of spatialist paradigms where would a Takemitsu or a Liu Tianhua fit into the mix? 
 
Just because American pedagogues in a university system don't make a habit of discussing a Stevie Wonder song at the same theoretical level or with the theoretical terms with which one might discuss a Scriabin or a Beethoven piano sonata does not mean the thing can't be done.  The idea that pedagogues somehow can't or won't take the time to be "bilingual" seems plausible to people who are already entrenched within academics, perhaps, but for musicians themselves there's not really a compelling reason to be stuck in that trench.  I don't have to worry about feeling like a long-form analysis of early 19th century guitar sonatas with an emphasis on sonata forms has to be at odds with discussing what makes "Living for the City" so brilliant and amazing.
 
 
My concern is that people who are trying to break the stranglehold that 19th century European pedagogy and American anxieties about the legacy of such pedagogy have had that Americans feel unable to measure up to within critical-productive establishments have a worthy, admirable goal, but my concern is that the rhetoric and alternative master narratives used to combat the old master narratives are ultimately just as racist as the old master narrative about white colonialist Euro-centric art--what makes it all the more daft is that that master narrative of the best white people have to offer from the 19th century purged a lot of wonderful music from the ninth through eighteenth centuries as if that was all in some sense a millennium without a bath. 
 
So in the larger history of Western musical idioms spanning the late medieval period through to the present it's not really the least bit certain that hip hop presents the biggest challenge to an ostensibly Eurological pedagogy.  Advocates of late Renaissance ars perfecta could charge that the early Baroque era composers and performers were just talking gibberish and wailing and panting and wheezing and that figured bass wasn't even really composing music, just a bunch of stupid charts for formulaic non-music ... and yet those idioms cumulatively catalyzed opera and evolved into the middle and late Baroque periods. 
 
For those of us whose musical interests in the Western traditions skew more Baroque (and 20th century!) than Romantic the proposal that hip hop somehow most conflicts with Western European "Eurological" musical thought seems ... tendentious. 
 
Now maybe if you read through a Heinrich Schutz piece from Little Sacred Concert pieces it looks like a vocal line over a figured bass that doesn't tell you a whole lot and that would be puzzling.  In a similar way you could look at any standard from the jazz repertoire by the great Thelonious Monk and wonder if a bare melody over a chord chart is going to be music but for someone who is a fan of Heinrich Schutz AND Thelonious Monk it's not hard to see and hear how both approaches lead to some beautiful music.  Let's say that jazz introduced a new and gorgeous era of "figured treble" where in the Baroque era there was an era of "figured bass" but both traditions have a lot of beautiful music in it.
 
Now if we could just agree that what we're trying to do is shake music pedagogy in the United States free of the stranglehold of German Idealism and a long 19th century then, sure, totally on board with that. If "that" is the Western "Eurological" pedagogy against which the existence of hip hop and popular styles (white as well as black) present problems then, yeah, that seems like a statement that's easy to agree with.  Pedagogues of 19th century art music ideals have no more ease describing the appeal of a Hank Williams Sr. song than a hip hop number because the ideals of 19th century European art music were predicated not on the song or the chant but on instrumental music, music considered able to convey "interiority" and a "striving for the infinite".  But jamming on a popular bass line was something pretty normal in the Baroque era, and having idioms in which the line between improvisation and composition was a bit nominal was also known to happen in the Baroque era.
 
The trouble is that the temptation to formulate master narratives never seems to go away and formulating a contrast between allegedly "Eurological" and "Afrological" aesthetic and methodological paradigms needs to be formulated carefully if it's going to be useful or even historically accurate.  And, to get a bit personal, I'm concerned that American journalistic and scholarly discourse can get a bit white-and-black at the expense of other groups and groups of relations between groups.  Let's say that someone says the shape note tradition is basically "white", well where would the Native American Thomas Commuck fit into that kind of master narrative?  We could say that blues is "black" music but there's been some reasonable scholarly consensus that Charley Patton was black but that he was partly Native American.  Does that invite the possibility that blues could be thought of as a working class musical style that could be taken up by working class people with working class challenges, perhaps?  Or does a narrative of blackness preclude that?  That's one of many issues that can emerge in which it's more than just possible that academics could create rather than ameliorate historical and historiographical problems. 
 

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