Friday, June 8, 2007

27. How to Listen to a Recording

The question before us, as presented in post 24, is: "what can we make of all these [recorded] examples, what do these resemblances mean, how seriously should we take them, are they significant or superficial?" I have been arguing, with the help of Agawu and Nattiez, that a great deal of importance can in fact be gleaned from a recording, which can indeed be understood, in Agawu's terms, as a "text," or, as for Nattiez, a "sonorous symbolic form" functioning as a "signifier." But a certain element of caution is necessary at this point, because, before one can read recordings like texts, one must first learn how to read such texts.

Whenever I present musical examples for comparison, either on the Internet, or when teaching or lecturing, I tend to cringe a bit inside, because I never know how my listeners will react. I've had people tell me that a recording I've just played, from Polynesia, or Central Asia, or Japan, sounds "just like" a song their grandmother from Poland used to sing. Or, on the other hand, when I present two performances in styles that sound quite similar to me, I'll hear something like "Oh well, what can one say about such comparisons, it's all subjective, you can always find something in one song that sounds like something in another." Which may of course be perfectly true. If one doesn't know what to listen for, then anything could sound like anything else.

If one were handed the text of a song from one of Shakespeare's plays, for example, and one had never read much poetry or any Shakespeare, then it might remind one of a TV jingle or popular lyric. After many years of study, however, you might feel confident you could distinguish a line of Shakespeare from that of any of his contemporaries.

Even in the case considered by Agawu, in which an African musical "text" is "read" primarily for contemplative or aesthetic purposes, such music might well, at first hearing, sound chaotic or simply monotonous. While, as Agawu has argued, we need not understand how this music functions in its social context in order to listen meaningfully, we may need to spend some time familiarizing ourselves with a new style before we are able to hear anything meaningful in it at all. And if we want to understand such "texts" in the spirit of Nattiez, not simply as objects of contemplation, or simply free floating signifiers freed from their signifieds, but potentially meaningful indices of traditions rooted in the deepest recesses of history, then we must certainly spend some time learning to "read" those traces.

By the time Alan Lomax conceived Cantometrics, he had spent many years in the field, recording a great many traditional performances not only in the United States, but the West Indies, Britain and parts of Europe. As editor of the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, he'd spent hundreds of hours listening to and evaluating field recordings from a wide variety of different peoples all over the globe. When I came to work with him, in the summer of 1961, I was far less experienced, but did at least have two years of intensive analytical listening behind me, as an ethnomusicology graduate student. As we worked together on developing the Cantometric method, we did a great deal of additional, very careful and critical listening to all sorts of performances from all corners of the world, to be sure we were making the sorts of distinctions that would prove both meaningful and useful.

Some years later, Lomax, with the assistance of jazz musician/composer Roswell Rudd, put together an extensive series of examples, from all over the world, on seven audio cassettes, as part of the training system in Cantometrics they'd developed [Cantometrics: an Approach to the Anthropology of Music, by Alan Lomax, The University of California Extension Media Center, Berkeley, 1976]. Familiarization with a wide variety of performance styles from a variety of different contexts worldwide is thus a very basic and necessary aspect of Cantometric training -- as it should, indeed, be expected of anyone seriously involved in the broad-based comparative study of traditional music.

Returning to the initial question, therefore, of whether or not the resemblances I've been pointing to are significant or superficial, the answer would be that this is by no means a simple or straightforward matter, certainly not one that could be decided by incidental listening rather than in-depth study. A lot would depend on ones familiarity with all the other major traditions of world music, as a basis for comparison. But in the long run there would be, as I see it, no substitute for the sort of systematic research made possible by a methodology such as Cantometrics.

When, therefore, I present some recorded examples of traditional performances on this blog, in order to illustrate some point I am making, the reader/listener must realize that the connections I'm hearing may not be immediately apparent to a novice -- though, with the aid of my comments I do hope it's possible for most here to listen with enough sympathy and understanding to follow the gist of my argument. And I hope I can count on at least some of you to keep things interesting by disagreeing from time to time.

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