Globalisation and Music

I’ve been trying to sort out my thinking this week, partly prompted by Andy Nercessian’s book,Postmodernism and Globalisation in Ethnomusicology: an Epistemological Problem,(2002), and partly by recent conversations. Due to the process of globalisation, discussing musical understanding in terms of the emic-etic dichotomy has become problematic, rendering these terms of limited use. Transcultural musical appropriations are on an unprecedented scale(no pun intended).Musical meaning, never an easy topic, has become ever more complicated owing to postmodern influence with its accompanying relativistic inclinations.On the meaning of any piece of music so many questions can be posed.Whose meaning? Who says? Which interpretation should be privileged? Are all equally valid?…And so it goes on!!

These tumbling thoughts raise questions about the ontological status of music.To my rescue,the current issue of Ethnomusicology Forum came through the letterbox recently. Stephanie Conn’s article contains references to Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic arc. If I’ve understood this correctly,it seems to offer a way to bridge the gap between the autonomy of text position and the meaninglessness of absolute relativism.

I’m off to the library tomorrow to explore further the writings of Paul Ricoeur.



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Book review: Musicians from a Different Shore – Mari Yoshihara

Working in a relatively under-researched field – cultural ethnographic approaches to classical music – has its pluses and its minuses. One of the minuses is the lack of studies to stimulate my own ideas and help clarify the important questions in the field. So I was disproportionately excited to hear from a colleague about a recent ethnography in this area which seems to be relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic – Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore (Temple University Press, 2007), a study of Asian American classical musicians.

Yoshihara, as she explains in the autobiographical introduction, is a Japanese American academic who works on American Orientalism. She learned piano intensively as a child and teenager but let go of her pianist identity as she moved into academia. This book is therefore in part a revisiting of that earlier self, an exploration she ties in gracefully with the broader themes of the book. She defines Asian American musicians as immigrants from East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China) to the US, or Asian Americans who grew up in the US. Her starting point is the discourses about Asians as a ‘model minority’ in the US for their overrepresentation in higher education and many professional fields, which coexist alongside discourses about Asian musicians as being ‘automatons’ who have amazing technical skills but play like robots. She contrasts these ideas with other ways that Asians are positioned in the classical music world in the US – for example, they are under-represented in management and positions of power – taking this as an indication that being Asian counts as a ‘racial marker’ for these musicians. Interestingly, this goes against her informants’ own views that being Asian doesn’t make any difference to them as musicians… of which more later.

Continue reading


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Emotionality…Where does it all come from?

I thought I’d write out loud a little in an attempt to get the things running round my mind out on the page, or on to the screen to be more precise. Last Friday I went to the Ethnomusicology, History and Critical Theory Seminar that may well become a regular occurrence at King’s in London (along with a few EDG regulars). Some of the stuff Martin Stokes was talking about was particularly interesting and so I’m wondering how I might apply this to my own material that I am currently processing and analysing post-fieldwork. Let me briefly try to summarise the key points of the discussion (or at least the bits I found most useful) – please feel free to disagree if you heard something different. Continue reading


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Fieldwork is just living… even for introverts

Is there an ideal personality type for an ethnomusicologist? Does the discipline attract some personality types more than others? To take this blog on a turn toward praxis for the moment, I thought I’d share some recent reflections on how my fieldwork experience has been shaped by my personality preferences, and how these have been both a resource and a challenge. I’d love to have a discussion about the matter of personality preferences and fieldwork, because it would seem reasonable to say that our experience of fieldwork has an effect on the end result of our ethnography, to say nothing of our wellbeing, and I’m curious what others have experienced. Continue reading


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Welcome to the new-look EDG blog!

Welcome to our re-vamped blog!  I hope you like it.  The re-browning, I mean, re-branding, of the page is to prepare us for the influx of posts that are going to follow.

We are going to have several themes running over the next few months: first, a series on fieldwork, including discussions of access, and people’s reflections on their experience.  Also, we’re going to have regular posts on What We’re Reading, which I will kick-start with a review of Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore. Please feel free to post summaries, reviews, or discussions of what you’re currently reading, whether it’s for the EDG reading group or your own reading.

Finally, I’m hoping that some of you who have sent me photos to use in the blog will also take the opportunity to write about them.  In Paul Gilroy’s chapter in The Auditory Cultures Reader (2004, eds Bull and Back) he discusses a photo of a crowd listening to reggae in London in 1974.  The photo doesn’t show any music or musicians – just the faces of the crowd who are mostly listening intently, some frowning, some looking down.  Gilroy writes ‘this was cultural work that incorporated defensive and affirmative elements: working over and working through the memories of slavery and colonialism, past sufferings and contemporary resistances, so that they could provide resources for interpreting the present and imagining a better future for blacks and for the whole world’ (2004:388).  It’s a beautiful passage, and it’s worth reading all of it, but maybe this snippet will inspire you to look at your fieldwork photos and think about the ‘cultural work’ that is occurring in them.

And finally, seeing this is a music-themed blog, maybe we should have some music in it – go ahead and add clips or links to some of the music you’re studying.

Happy reading/listening/looking!


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Postcard from a music analysis conference

Last weekend, the Society for Music Analysis held a two-day “Celebration of Music Analysis”, to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the journal Music Analysis. The organisers brought together an impressive group of scholars who gave largely excellent papers on a variety of music-analytical topics. Sounds great, right? Well, it was. But here’s the thing: none of those impressive scholars was an ethnomusicologist. And, as far as I am aware, I was the only ethnomusicologist in attendance. I thought this was a shame. Close musical analysis has always been a big part of my own work on North Indian classical music and I am convinced that most ethnomusicologists and music analysts have a great deal to learn from each other. I do not wish to bore you all with a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of the conference. Rather, in the hope of promoting future engagement, I’m going to highlight a few ideas that came up in the conference that I think would be of interest to ethnomusicologists.

The universal human tendency to analyse?

In the general discussion session that concluded the event, the conversation briefly touched on ethnomusicology and the analysis of world music. I was very happy to hear Richard Cohn mention the excellent, so far North-America-based collaboration between what the Americans call “music theorists” (who mainly work on Western classical music) and ethnomusicologists, as part of the Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM) conferences and journal.

Defending music analysis against the claim that the discipline is moribund, condemned to disappear alongside (Western classical) musical literacy, Jonathan Dunsby then spoke of its apparent universality. He brought up anecdotal evidence suggesting that most musicians, all over the world, like to talk and think about how music works and what it means, which he is happy to label “analysis”.  (I’m paraphrasing: I can’t remember the exact words he used, but anyway that was the general idea.)

I quite like the idea that analytical thinking about music is some kind of basic human tendency, a natural complement to music-making. It certainly holds true in the case of North Indian classical music, in which there is a lively scene of musicians and connoisseurs who love to talk about the fine nuances of musical style and performance. Musicians encourage this at concerts when they introduce their performances with lengthy verbal explanations of what they are about to sing. Audiences signal their close engagement with the music they are hearing when they respond out loud to particularly interesting musical events, such as temporary departures from the main rāg in semi-classical performances. (In a Western classical concert, this would be roughly the equivalent of audience members’ turning to each other and saying “Wow!” out loud after an especially interesting or surprising modulation.) In the context of North Indian classical music at least, not to write about those fine musical details would seem to be doing an injustice to the musicians and audiences who consider them important. And this idea of a universal human tendency to analyse would seem to be a good starting point for dialogue between music analysts and ethnomusicologists.

I’d be interested to hear what you all have to say about this. Is analysis really as universal as I want it to be? Have any of you noticed anything similar in the various types of music that you study? How widespread is analytical thinking about music? How is that different from any other kinds of thinking about music, or should we label all thinking about music analytical? Even if musicians aren’t interested in analysing their own music, should we do it anyway?

Embodied understandings of music

A number of EDG (the discussion group that accompanies this blog) are interested in relationships between music and the body and ways in which types of musical understanding might be embodied. (In fact, we dealt with this issue at length at the last EDG meeting, earlier this week.) It would seem that this issue is also on the radar of our analytical colleagues. In a lovely paper on a Chopin performance by the pianist Alfred Cortot, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson drew attention to a link between the pianist’s use of rubato and the shape of the melodic line he was playing, such that he sped up as the pitches got lower and slowed down as they got higher. He compared this with the bodily sensation of cycling over hills: we speed up on downhill sections and slow down when we’re going uphill. I was quite taken by this idea: amongst other things, it resonates with my experience of listening to Cuban music through my iPod and feeling the dance steps I would be doing if I were dancing to it. It would also seem to sit very comfortably alongside, say, Martin Clayton and Laura Leante’s work on physical gesture in North Indian classical music.

Music / theory interactions

Elizabeth Eva Leach’s inspired Lacanian reading of converging melodic lines in medieval two-part vocal music was an exemplary demonstration of how one might read music through theory. This is something which some of us at EDG (and at the IMR reading group with overlapping membership) have been attempting repeatedly over the last couple of years. We often (with varying degrees of success) devote the last portion of our discussions of non-musicological texts (Freud, Spivak etc.) to considering how our chosen reading might shed light on the various types of music we all study. I, for one, have been exploring ways of doing this in my own work, too. Leach’s work would suggest that this is another area in which we might well benefit from dialogue with our analytical colleagues.

In that it dealt with aspects of musical interaction, Leach’s paper wouldn’t have seemed out of place at this year’s annual British Forum for Ethnomusicology (BFE) conference. In fact, I suspect it would have gone down very well there. Her ideas about “distributed cognition” in musical performance (explained here), for example, would have provided an interesting counterpoint to Joe Browning’s provocative discussion of the distribution of agency in shakuhachi performances. (I wonder what Joe would say about this…)

This blog post, already too long, could have been far longer. I could have written about Michael Spitzer’s paper on emotion in music and noted parallels with Indian theoretical discussions of rasa and bhāva. I could have discussed Nicholas Reyland’s theories of musical narrative, which he himself told me in conversation that he thought might apply outside the Western classical canon. I could focussed on the subject of metre: Richard Cohn, one of the two keynote speakers at the event, argued persuasively that metre is a topic which promises not only to bring together analysts of Western classical music with analysts of other types of music, but also to bring together analysts with performers. And I could have recounted Adam Ockelford’s stimulating descriptions of imitation in music therapy: his “zygonic” theory of music is applicable to music-making in many more contexts than just Western classical ones. But I will stop here. I have gone on long enough. I hope at least to have made the case that it’s worth it for ethnomusicologists to think about attending future music-analytical conferences. (And of course I don’t think this should be a one-way street: analysts would, I think, have a lot to learn from ethnomusicologists too – but that probably deserves a blog post of its own.) And then maybe we will be able to continue the discussion with our analyst colleagues in person some day…


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The Exoticism of Music


As a composer, session musician, and producer, I come to the academic arena with a lifetime of practical experience predominantly in the popular music genres with a concentration on Pop, Rock, Reggae, Soca, and Bhangra. In the 1980s I was involved in and responsible for many Bhangra recordings in the capacity of studio owner, recording engineer and producer. To clarify my position, I am of Canadian and Jewish origin, relocating to the UK in the 1970s and so my approach from an ethnomusicological standpoint is that of an ‘outsider’. I am currently researching a PhD, subject title: Cross Cultural Fusion Music and its impact on the acceptance of diverse communities in the UK.


I am researching and developing a number of concepts within the analysis of the music that I had a direct involvement and influence in. The one I would like to explore within this blog and to solicit your responses and ideas is that of the exoticism of music genres in indigenous popular music. We as musicians and ethnomusicologists are familiar with the concept of hybridity and the fusion of cultural influences that has resulted in ‘new’ music genres. Many examples exist but as an illustration I will cite Iranian Hip Hop. This music is a result of Afro American street style music that has been adapted, changed and morphed into a new genre that exists solely for a market that targets a politicized Iranian youth. Interestingly the migration of Hip Hop to the Middle East was not a result of diasporic migration, but of communication technology providing a platform and conduit that exposed the music to other cultures. Other examples past and present, exist within popular music culture like 2Tone, which was an Anglicized fusion of Jamaican Ska (also a result of hybridity) and punk music.

I would, however, like to point to the British Pop scene of the last five decades, where pop producers and artists have injected elements of World Music into their productions, not necessarily for artistic or compositional purposes, but to create a reference to the exotic in the music without recognising the legitimacy or value of the origins of that music. Putting a sitar or tabla onto a popular music track does not necessarily maintain the integrity of that instrument or the music it was originally designed to facilitate. It is not the use of different timbres or textures that I am alluding to. It is the motivation of the composer to use a so- called ‘ethnic’ instrument to project an image of the exotic in order to set it apart from what may be a very ordinary composition. This particular use of elements of non-indigenous music, be-it instruments or motivic features, is not the same concept as creating a genre from two or more influences as in the hybrid examples earlier. This method of exoticism in music is simply devised for the sake of sensationalism and an attempt at setting the music apart from the norm.

The music that I was involved in for a substantial part of my career was British Asian Bhangra music. This was a fusion of Western Pop sensibilities with traditional Punjabi folk music. It developed in many directions, not necessarily to best advantage but that is another discussion, and fused to become a new genre exclusive originally to the UK, and then exported all around the world to then be incorporated back into India and the Bollywood genres. The use of exoticism that I refer to is the use of elements of ‘ethnic’ instruments to spice up the music. This possibly alludes to a hegemonic positioning of Western Popular Music with a quasi-arrogant superior view. This infers that anything other than indigenous Western Popular Music is exotic, and thereby trite, and lacks the integrity of Western music.

This may be a contentious position but I would like to explore it further and if I can develop some sort of triviality-integrity index, it could be extremely interesting.

Richard Lightman


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