Help I am in trouble!
(Graduiertenkurs, Crêt-Bérard – August 2008 – organized by the Institute of Musicology, University of Bern)
Did you ever consider that music scholarship can be dangerous? Sometimes it can. If you are curious, just follow me, and you will see why the title of this short address is: “Help, I am in trouble!”.
Obviously, I am interested in music, and just about everything else. I disagree with Émile Cioran when he says in his Syllogismes de l'amertume, this world does not even deserve to be known (“Objection contre la science: ce monde ne mérite pas d'être connu.”). On the contrary, I like to know things, if I can. Usually people who like to know things, cultivate a field in particular, but I do not really have “a field”, although I rather comfortable with “ethnomusicology”. Although the word itself “ethnomusicology” sounds so pompous and unmusical. But what I like about this field of intellectual endeavor is that it is unsettling, adventurous, ultimately – believe it or not – even dangerous. Outside of ethnomusicology, one can get very involved with music history, aesthetics, theory, psychology, pedagogy, but that is unlikely to interfere with one's mental sanity. In other words – it is safe. Not so when you explore worlds of music that belong to cultures totally foreign to your own, worlds of music that relate to worldviews that antagonize one another.
Our daily life is already rich in musical stimulation. It is challenging to intellectually and emotionally cope with the music we cannot avoid and just have to take. In a way, we are all actors in a film; there always is a soundtrack accompanying our actions, and putting a perspective on what we do, whether we like it or not. We have experienced in the course of the XX century, a progressive and veritable “sonification” of our lives; apparently irreversible. It does require adjustments, although we are often unaware of our strategies to cope. If I am having dinner in a restaurant with a charming lady, and we both hear ABBA in the background, that gives our conversation a tinge, a color it would not have without ABBA or with some other kind of music. That requires compensations that we apply without even noticing. If the music is sad, and we are trying to create a cheerful atmosphere, than we need to work harder at it, and work against the music, so to say. Without music we could afford to be lightly witty, with it we may need to to push it and become sarcastic. That psychological work can be quite taxing.
If in addition, to this unavoidable stressful activity, you decide to also collect experiences with music belonging to very different cultures – then you are looking for trouble. Let me explain. Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) once expressed the idea (in his The Seven Pillars of Wisdom) that, when you learn a second language you lose your soul. A Czech proverb puts it the other way around: “Learn a new language and get a new soul”. No doubt, there nothing wrong with having more than one soul. There is nothing in the concept of soul “per se” that constrains us to believe people have only one. In ancient Egypt people thought they had two; the Jivaro of Ecuador have three; the Fan of Gabon have seven (...which is, as far as I know, a world record). The trouble is, different souls may not agree with one-another.
Do you wish to develop appreciation for the Buddhist chant of Tibet? Either you reshape your “I” or try to develop a second one, and hopefullly keep them separate. That is because Tibetan chant requires you to develop a different sense of aesthetics, and possibly even restructuring the way you experience time and space. Basic processes – pitch, attack, intensity, timber, form - may operate similarly in all musics. But what is especially meaningful to, say, the Inuit of Alaska or the Suya of Brazil, about their own music, may precisely be what makes it different from any other – rather than what it has in common. Aspects of human experience that are “trans-cultural,” are not necessarily the more significant. After all, human beings are born with two arms and two legs, but that does not lead them to develop the same worldview, or coincident ideas about good and evil. That is why over-exposure to alien music may not be for everybody. Someone’s music may evoke attitudes that ultimately tell us it is wrong to be who we are and what we are. In other words, massive, continues, habitual exposure to alien music may lead us to acquire a second musical soul, antagonistic to the one we already have (as you see, I disagree with the accepted wisdom that one can progressively incorporate alien musical worlds, like Kodaly used to maintain; maybe intellectually we can; but not always emotionally).
At the very least, experiencing each music by its own standard requires a continuous "gear-switching", and that is hard to do. Worse still, once you explore alien musical worlds, what do you do when you – and if you – eventually come back “home”? You will probably better appreciate what makes your musical mother tongue special, but you will not necessarily like it more, or as much as you used to.
I feel ambivalent about that. On the one hand I am convinced that in our day and age, it only makes sense to see the Euro-Western tradition in the context of all the others. At the same time, I find the experience unsettling. Just like we gain a better understanding of our first language, of its potential as well as its limitations, when we learn a second one; by the same token, a good assimilation of the music of Indonesia, China, or Japan, will in the end increase our understanding of, say, Puccini, or Morricone; but will not necessarily increase our appreciation of their music. I can possibly explain this by referring to the languages I need to use. Italian is my first language, and the only one where I have some control of subtle shadings; but it is not my favourite. Other languages, because of the experiences I collected among the people who use them have been endearing. By the same token Western music is the one I have been exposed to for a longer time than any other. But it is no longer the one I prefer. I hardly ever attend a concert of Western classical music anymore. I literally keep away from symphony orchestras. If there is a crescendo, and there unfailingly is, it makes me cringe - I cannot take it. And I ask myself, why did we have to develop a music tradition that is so pretentious and rhetorical. We may just have developed in the West, the most pompous music the world has ever known.
You see, I am in trouble. I feel caught between the horns of a dilemma that is well expressed by these two conflicting statements: Hermann Graf Keyserling wrote once in his Reisetagebuch eines Philosophen the following statement: "Der kürzeste Weg zu sich selbst führt um die Welt herum." Well, maybe, but traveling is dangerous. You can lose your way. And then, voicing the opposite view there Blaise Pascal: "tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre."
The idea of telling about my dilemma, of explaining why because of my work in music scholarship I feel I am in trouble, I got it from a paper Dr. Sarah Ross, of the University of Bern, presented at a conference (1). Her paper was a plea, to encourage scholars to make it plain what feelings and emotions they experience in dealing with the object of their own investigations. And that is what I just did. She is a good colleague and friend of mine, and I would always go out of my way to make her happy!
(1) Sarah Ross, "Fieldwork between Heart and Brain, Imagination and Reality: Towards the Production and Representation of Jewish Musical Knowledge", International Council for Traditional Music, 41st World Conference, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, July of 2011.