Posts Tagged 'ethnomusicology'

Reasons I love my job

I have really enjoyed working at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music over the last year. The people have been wonderful, it’s been a very pleasant, low-pressure atmosphere in which to spend my days, and I am actually quite interested in the work we do here. Ethnomusicology, like musicology, is a field in which I think I’m best served having a tangential interest, but tangential or not, it’s still an interest and those field still touch some of what I do in some way. (Which reminds me — there’s an article in the current issue of the journal Ethnomusicology about musical practices in the Estonian Orthodox Church that I keep meaning to talk about. Maybe now that the semester’s over.) I will be quite sorry to leave this position in many respects, but I expect to maintain something of a relationship with the good folks here nonetheless.

One of the joys of working here has been the semi-regular occurrence of finding things related to my interests which I didn’t know existed and didn’t expect to find. For example, something we archive here is the correspondence of the Archive’s founder, George Herzog. Recently, while looking for something else, I came across a folder labeled “Strunk, Oliver“. A letter dated 22 April 1940 has Herzog telling Strunk, “I have not forgotten your offer to let me see your Byzantine material,” but what’s even more interesting is this tantalizing passage in a letter from Herzog to Strunk dated 27 May 1940, context unclear:

I feel still a little unhappy about the by this time familiar points in your argumentation, and I still feel that it is merely a question of wording as well as manner of progression in the argument. This is the sort of thing that is difficult to get across verbally and is so much easier to put on paper where each word can be weighed, manicured, cuddled, and generally kicked about. I do not wish to bother you — more than I have already — but if and when you have a final version of the wording, I would be much interested in your reaction to Sachs’ comments. I should think once you wish to work without analogies, the Eastern ones are as unnecessary or unjustified as the Western ones. His point about the great variability of intervals (seconds, and thirds, not fourths and fifths!) in Coptic church singing would mean two things. 1) The system as interpreted through theory and writing and interpretation may not have covered actual practice exactly. I imagine this is to be taking (sic) for granted, as long as there are no records of the practice itself. I suppose you agree with this and possibly it is not sufficiently explicit in your paper. 2) Where there are no objective records of vocal music, one finds that variation in interval intonation or interval actualization is never helter-skelter. It always involves average points around which the varying “tones” cluster. These points are then the pragmatic “tones,” which may or may not be very close to tones as calculated in a theoretical system. There may be two average points instead of one at a given spot in the scale, in which case one may make up one’s mind whether one has two tones or regular alternation in the point of actualizing a tone, the alternation depending on given factors such as direction of melodic movement etc. This brings me to the concept of a “toneme” which rhymes with “phoneme,” an important linguistic concept. However, I shall spare you this until I know you are fortified by at least one beer; a thing of which I cannot be sure at the moment. (emphasis mine)

Granted, these points are brought up specifically in relation to Coptic chant, but Herzog’s points still appear to come very close to the criticism of the “narrative of decline” which Strunk helped to further regarding the received tradition of Byzantine chant — in 1940. I’d love to have been there for that beer, and I’d also love to know which particular argumentation prompted Herzog’s comments, as wells as Sachs’ (whoever he was, and whatever his comments specifically were — maybe I should go back and see if there’s a folder for Sachs).

In the fall of 2005, I took 20th century music theory from Dr. Julian Hook. At some point, in discussing microtonalities, we spent some time in class discussing the one and only Harry Partch, a genuine American original (I refuse to use the “m” word of which Gov. Palin is so fond). Among other things, Partch went so far as to build his own instruments for the tunings he used, and wrote a song cycle based on graffiti he had seen on a highway railing. His music is legitimately very interesting, but it’s also clear that it comes from a mind existing well off the beaten path.

So, while I was putting away the Strunk folder, my eyes fell on a folder labeled “Partch, Harry”.

No <very bad word> way, I thought to myself.

What seems to have happened, according to the correspondence we’ve archived, is that in 1934, Partch got referred to Herzog by a “Mr. Moe” and a “Mr. Surette” (I assume these to be Henry Allen Moe and Thomas Whitney Surette), and Partch sent Herzog “some material” regarding his manifesto Exposition on Monophony (there is a two-page “résumé” of the Exposition in the folder), “but I was not able to interest you sufficiently to deserve a reply,” Partch wrote in a letter to Herzog dated 1 April 1936. Later, Partch transcribed a field recording made of the Isleta tribe of New Mexico (material from which Partch used in the c.1949 work “Cloud-Chamber Music”), and sent his transcription to Herzog at the suggestion of of a “Professor Kroeber” (I assume Alfred L. Kroeber). The letter of 1 April 1936 continues:

This is not my major work, the work in which I treid to interest you previously. I am a composer who chooses not to be tyrannized by the limitations of media as he finds them.

I am impelled to remind you of these ideals, for which I have been fighting for thirteen years–

I am fighting for an untrammelled musical expression, and, consequently, against the exploitation of music by a clique of interpreters and academicians, which can only, and is, leading to a sterile intellectualism.

I am fighting for a richer musical system and greater resources in the way of instruments. I have built several myself.

I am fighting for an art that is closer to the people and their earth, and against the increasingly esoteric abstractions of our serious music. My own efforts are based on the inflections of spoken words.

Perhaps you will say that I am fighting for the impossible and against insuperable odds, and I will reply that the way of reform is often long and devious, and that I am blessed with a leaven of patience.

Yours sincerely,

Harold Partch

Evidently Herzog remained unimpressed, because the next item in the folder is a handwritten letter from Partch dated 11 October 1936, six months later:

Dear Sir —

Last March I forwarded to you a manuscript on California Indian music, at the suggestion of Prof. Kroeber of Berkeley. To ensure its safe return I enclosed a stamped addressed envelope.

I believe you to be a busy person, and so are all persons who live with a purpose. I am not sufficiently impressed by this fact to refrain from asking for the return of my work.


Harry Partch

The manuscript in question is not in the folder. Herzog’s response to Parch is not particularly interesting — there is a page of pencilled notes outlining some brief critiques of Partch’s transcription, followed by a two-page, polite, typed letter to Partch containing these comments; presumably Herzog sent this letter, with the manuscript, back to Partch in the referenced envelope.

“…the way of reform is often long and devious, and…I am blessed with a leaven of patience.” So much of the personality of this man is present in just these two letters that, even as distinctive as Partch’s music is, is simply impossible to get from an analysis of his scores or his biographical data. If Hook is still teaching Partch, it seems to me these letters would be at least amusing for him to have as additional material.

Yes, this is what I love about my job.

What’s fascinating about these letters is that it is a window into a very different professional culture. The letters read like somebody actually cares what they say and has a sense they will be preserved somewhere; even allowing for most people having secretaries and more often than not having their secretaries write letters that they themselves only sign, there is a lot of personality here. Perhaps it is largely affectation, but it’s still highly interesting reading.

George List, in the brief time that I got to interact with him, seemed very much to still be trying to exist in this world, despite the rest of academia being a world where people dash off e-mails by themselves, and almost nobody has a secretary. His former secretary still works for the Archives; I made this very observation to her, and her response was, “I told him once a few years ago that most people write their own letters these days. He was very taken aback.”

Self-importance? Personality? Affectation? Who knows — it’s fun to read this stuff regardless, and to try to follow the various trails down which they lead.

Various points of interest (or not)

George List was an emeritus faculty member for the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology here at IU. He retired in 1976, the year I was born, but still had an office and an assistant here. I first spoke to him over the phone in April, when I started working here at the Archives of Traditional Music; I met him for the first of three times in August. He was ninety-seven years old, he was frail, he was blind, he had been a widower for “seven long years” as he put it, and he had even outlived his son. Despite all of that, he was sharp as a tack, very active mentally, perfectly articulate. He was also clearly very lonely. He made a big impression on me the three times I got to meet him, perhaps more than I realize even now.

He passed away on Sunday, 28 September. It’s affected me this week a lot more than I thought it would — I even had a dream about him a couple of nights ago, although I don’t really remember much about it, beyond wanting to say goodbye in person and trying go back in time a couple of days by crossing the international date line. Aionia mneme.

Sometimes there are these fortuitous moments of synchronicity that tell you you were supposed to do something. Megan has been toying with the idea of getting an iPod for a little while, and I finally decided it was time to take the plunge and call it a late birthday present (my regular readers, both of them, may recall that I was in New York and she had just arrived in Germany on her birthday; I was so discombobulated that I didn’t remember to say “Happy birthday”, and she was so discombobulated that she didn’t notice). So we bought one of the new 120gb iPod Classics yesterday (it was $250; for reference, my 80gb Classic was $350 a year and a half ago), and after paying for it, the guy behind us in line, noticing we had bought a different pair of earbuds, asked us, “Hey, do you want the earbuds that come with that?”

We shrugged and said, “No, not really.”

“Can I buy them from you for $10?” He was about to spend $30 or some such on a replacement pair — seemed fair to us, and appeared to be one of those moments where the timing just worked out the way it was supposed to.

Of course, once we got home, we realized that we had also given him the USB cable. Oh well — keeps us humble.

Me, Bryn, and some guy at Jeff Fletcher's wedding, 12 September 2005A year ago today my friend Bryn Patrick Martin passed away from a bad reaction to painkillers. It was a stupid way to go and entirely preventable; I’m still mad at him. He was a constant, and I mean a constant, in my life between 1993 and 2003; this picture of him and me smoking cigars (can’t remember who the guy on the far left was) was taken the last time I saw him, 12 September 2003. His devilish smile (and overall countenance), obscene sense of humor, and most of all his fierce loyalty to the people about whom he cared remain very much missed. Aionia mneme.

I note among the stats for the last few days that for the first time ever I’ve received a hit off of a Google search for “Richard Barrett.” Exactly how this works I’m not sure, since last time I checked, I think it was the 15th page of results before this blog popped up, so the searcher in question must have been very persistent. Not that I care about my Google rank, exactly, but I do hope that people don’t see all of the matches on the first several pages for the white supremacist Richard Barrett and think that’s me. (If he had any idea who I was, he’d probably hope people didn’t get us confused, too.) If people want to think I’m the English composer or the motivational speaker, that’s probably okay. (Maybe not the R&B pioneer or the minor-league Depression-era Seattle baseball player, since they’re both dead.)

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