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Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Where Ethnos Fear to Tread"

I would like to write a little follow-up on the previous blog on public space. I was in Kazakhstan this summer, at the bi-yearly world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music ICTM. ICTM is the worldwide organization for ethnomusicologists, and in spite of its rather old-fashioned name it is a conference where ethnomusicologists of all plumage from all over the world come together and discuss their very current research. Research which ranges from the traditional ethnomusicological (research into 'traditional music' from the 'non-western world') to a huge variety of other domains: pop musics in non-western countries; traditional musics in western countries; revivals of traditional musics; safeguarding of traditional musics; or - and that is where I fit in - simply the study of music in/as culture - the study of music as human social behavior. This last category is, when carried out in western societies, rather small, so small that I sometimes wonder whether I am not too much the odd one out at ethnomusicological conferences, but in Kazakhstan I found it reconfirmed that there are enough points of convergence between me and all those other ethnomusicologists to be part of ICTM. So yes, ICTM is my academic home; and yes, I am an ethnomusicologist. Good to know who you are and where you belong, academically speaking. And looking forward to the next conference, 2017 Ireland.

'But anyway.' A conference, and especially a world conference, is a specific form of public space. Public in the sense that 600 very heterogeneous academics come and visit each other's presentations. And public in the sense that presenters share their presentation with an unknown audience, who will come to listen on the basis of a very short written abstract, or, more often, just the presentation title. So in a sense, it is a meeting of people who often don't know each other, on terrain that is home to none of them. In that sense it has a form of publicness.

In my opinion it means that a certain carefulness should be in place. Carefulness in the best sense of the word, circling around the idea of 'care': care for those other people whose backgrounds you do not know and who are there not only as 'academics' (whatever that may mean) but also as full human beings. This form of care implies a certain cautiousness surrounding topics which you know may be socially awkward - 'sex and violence', for instance (which is, by the way, also the title of the second episode of the first year of Monty Python's television series).

Earlier I wrote about a presenter at the previous ICTM conference showing, without warning, the image of the head of a freshly decapitated sorcerer being carried on a stake by a mob through the streets. This edition, I witnessed a presentation which was far more cautious - and much more interesting - but still raised questions. So let me just share the questions with you.

A young scholar gave a presentation based on the famous 'Leekspin' video, which uses a Finnish song called the Ievan Polkka (Wikipedia tells us the words are from the 1930s but the music is - maybe much - older) in the version of a Finnish folk group called  Loituma (you see the connection to ICTM's 'traditional music' at work). The video, with a Japanese anime girl, went viral; it became an internet-meme, which gave the presenter the opportunity to use a beautiful quotation from Richard Dawkins concerning the superiority of cultural memes over biological genes: "We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world's culture, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool." The presenter had tried to figure out where the Leekspin video came from, and found out that it was based on a pornographic shock video called Meatspin. Funnily enough, the presenter said, most people seem to think Meatspin is based on Leekspin, but it seems to be the other way around.

But although this was interesting, the topic of the presentation was different. By presenting his example, the presenter wanted to draw attention to two phenomena which are under-studied in ethnomusicology: the virtual world ('cyber-ethnography'), and pornography. In his abstract he wrote: "The lack of study on music associated with pornographic images (...) provides an excellent opportunity to understand the motivations and biases behind all ethnomusicologists' choices of research topics." So the presentation (called "Where Ethnos Fear To Tread: Criticizing Our Aversion To The Electronic And The Erotic") functioned as a mirror, and although I cannot judge whether pornography and, especially, cyber-ethnography are really so underrepresented in ethnomusicology (the virtual musical world is rather a topic at present, and eroticism, sex and pornography may not be widely studied but neither are they absent, I think) the point the presenter made was worthwhile and courageous.

But now the thingy. In order to make his point, the presenter first showed various examples of Leekspin-videos and remakes of it, and then a very explicit still of the pornographic Meatspin video. When I talked with the presenter afterwards, he said that he showed a still because for some reason he couldn't get the video to play, otherwise he would have shown the video. He also said that he had given the presentation on earlier occasions sometimes with and sometimes without the porn clip, and both varieties yielded strong reactions: with he porn clip he was offensive, without it he was an example of the cowardice he tried to discuss.

Personally I felt that the pornographic still came too much as a surprise. The title of the presentation would not give you a clue of its coming - it mentions 'the erotic' which is at best a euphemism but probably something completely different - nor did the abstract; and in his presentation he did not offer audience members who might not want to be confronted with pornographic images the opportunity to close their eyes or look away for the time being. I considered it unfair, but I understand the presenter's point. In our talk afterwards het stressed that the point I tried to make was a concern for him too, with no fixed answers as yet for him.

At the back of all this may lie ideas that in research ("in academia" as some of my colleagues say, often pronouncing "academia" in the same way believers pronounce the word "church") we express the objective truth and therefore any topic or finding of research must be expressed freely anywhere, without restraint; a bit like medical doctors showing disgusting pictures of horrible wounds of sometimes very private bodily parts as interesting footage. I think this idea that research is beyond/above the norms of sociality - of which I do not suspect the presenter I write about in this blog - is wrong; research in the social sciences, indeed, has to shed new light on everyday life and may make implicit norms explicit and hence understandable; but at the same time the academic community is a community - a social community functioning in the same way as any other community.

I wonder what you think, so let's have a chat about it when we meet. And what do you think: should I have incorporated the Meatspin video in the blog? Or a still? Or a link? Or should I not even have mentioned its name but spoken about "a pornographic video on YouTube"? Is the solution I chose careful, or is it cowardice?

Let me know.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Live and Let Live

It is summer, which means it is the time of the aggressive occupation of our public aural space. This implies that at least in the weekends, but preferably also during the week, at least from one but often from many directions one hears a subdued or sometimes less subdued 'whoomp-whoomp-whoomp' - the amplified bass drums of an open air music festival, and when the source is not too far away also amplified voices, bass guitars, guitars, coputers, turn tables. And if there is no open air music festival, there will be some whoomping because the local soccer club has its 40th anniversary and includes 'background music' - mostly so loud that one has to shout at the top of one's lungs to communicate over this 'background' - as an important feature. And if by chance there are no such festivities, than at least one of the neighbors will have decided to spend the entire 'evening' (which in this special case is defined as the time between17.30 pm and 02.00 am the next morning) organizing a barbecue and chatting happily away, not realizing that you can - and therefore must, you know how it works - follow every single word they say.

You may think I am a grumpy old man who wants to live in a silent world apart from his own noise. The thing is, I am not. I am fully aware that all this noise makes up the sound track of modern life. It is inevitable, and because I do not live in the ideal world and never will - also because my ideal world is a very particular one in which most other people would feel very unhappy - I accept all this with relative ease, within limits. It is only very seldom that I ask other people to lower their volumes, like last night, when the street next door had its annual party which meant the accompanying whoomping became louder and louder as the evening progressed - contrary to what one would expect in a street where many kids at some point go to bed - so that at a quarter past eleven I went out to ask my neighbors if they could lower the volume a bit because not only my kids but also me myself and I would like to get some sleep, whereupon one of the neighbors said they had a municipal permission until midnight - I didn't dare to quote Monty Python by saying "I am sorry, but this is irrelevant, isn't it?" nor did I tell the neighbor that a permission to have a street party until midnight did not imply by necessity the obligation to whoomp at intolerable high levels and then scream your conversation on top of it until precisely midnight. And I must admit they did lower the volume after my request. A bit. And they stopped at midnight precisely.

I exaggerate. But not much.

But anyway (as I am prone to write in this blog). All this has to with the idea of the 'public space' in which we share our lives. It is a contested place, this 'public space'. It is - or should be - owned by everyone, and it is the territory where our capacity to live a social life is played out in full.. It is the testing ground of our democracy, one might say - the testing ground of our capacity to "live and let live" without one part of the population doing the living and the other part doing the letting live, as it were. Food for thought, therefore - it remains an incredible mystery how it is possible that more than 16 million people in the Netherlands are able to live their daily lives in relative peace in spite of all the differences they meet. Something to cherish, and good to realize that this relative peace is never straightforward but is continuous 'work in progress'.

It is with this in mind that I want to draw your attention to a little incident. Noorderzon festival is taking place in Groningen these days. An art work by an artist called Harma Heikens, as our newspaper assures us "an internationally renowned visual artist", was exposed at the festival terrain, which is accessible to everyone for free and is, outside the festival season, a nice park in the middle of the town. Two men were shocked by the art work, finding it offensive, and threatened some people of the festival, after which the festival direction decided the work should be replaced at a less public place.

I am not going into the question whether or not the festival directors were right or wrong (I guess their decision may be defendable given the fact that the festival terrain temporarily is something in between 'public space' and 'museum space' - I think in a museum one can - or must? - exhibit offensive art whereas in public space this is less straightforwardis; at the same time the decision may be questionable given the fact that it was the festival who invited the artist to expose the work in the first place - they might have been concerned about the publicness of their space a bit earlier), or whether it is good civil conduct to threaten people (obviously it is not). But I would like to draw your attention to the reaction of Harma Heikens - at least to the description of it in our newspaper.

According to the newspaper, Heikens did not think the art work - described as "a phantasy figure with an artificial penis and sagged knickers" - is offensive, telling that it was shown at the RAI and a group of kids were sitting around it drawing without being offended or shocked. I showed a picture of the art work to a good friend, and she remarked that of course Heikens could not imagine this image would be offensive because probably it depicted the artist herself in one of her daily public poses and of course people would find this a completely acceptable and normal public pose.


What worries me in all this is the self-evident way in which a visual artist claims that she may take possession of something - public space, and our gaze in public space - that is ultimately not hers to possess. Public space is not an artistic space, and the fact that many artists (and some musicians) think they are there to work at the boundaries of the offensive does never give them the right to imply others in their offense by force. Which is what they do when they work in public space (the argument "you don't have to look" - or listen - is invalid in public space, of course). And which, I think, in the end can sometimes amount to wittingly and from a very egocentric standpoint jeopardizing that so fragile work-in-progress which is the relative peace most of us strive to live in day by day.

Artists may, or maybe must, play with fire. And it is fine if they set their own house on fire. But deliberately setting fire to public space and then denying they lighted the match has nothing to do with art. And if it has, I don't like such art because of its hypocrisy. And you may quote me having said that.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

All Well in Astana

I am, with 650 others, in Astana to visit the 43rd world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music, my beloved professional organization uniting ethnomusicologists from all over the world. In my case a warm renewal of friendships forming over the years, with people listening to such illustrious names as Carlos, Marcia, Svanibor, Sooi-Beng - and that's just a few.

Astana is the new capital of Kazakhstan. It is a futuristic, Dubai-like city in the middle of the Kazakh steppe.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kazachstan astana

And as the conservatoire where I work is rebuilding, may I suggest the following?

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kazachstan astana

You may know how conferences work. Late at night you drive from the airport to the hotel you have reserved with a bus from the organizing committee. Two girls are there to help you but they don't speak too much of English or any other language you know, whereas your Russian and Kazakh is slighty rusty. In the hotel they don't know you, you're on no list whatsoever, but finally they agree to give you a room. But only if you pay directly which is impossible because they don't do creditcards. Next morning, after a couple of hours sleep, it turns out they don't offer breakfast, and you have no money to buy it because cash machines don't work with your cards for some reason. So you walk to the conference venue and hope to find someone to borrow money from - which of course works out fine, so you cán eat lunch after all, which is the beginning of the reversal. Things fall into place: cash machines start working, when you're back at the hotel you shake hands with the hotel guy who tells you you can use the kitchen for breakfast if you want, shows you a fan you can use to replace the non-existing airco and a drinking water supply you may use, and when you ask about payment he suddenly draws a pin terminal from a drawer, hooks it up to the computer and miraculously you can pay electronically after all.

And when you go outside for an evening stroll, you walk between the huge apartment buildings and find out that there are children's playgrounds everywhere where kids play and mothers sit on benches, fathers discuss their cars, young guys play football as everywhere in the world. You find a small supermarket where you buy breakfast for tomorrow and find out again that sign language works. And you realize that life is not dependent on the size of buildings, but on humans - and that they are remarkably different but remarkably recgonizable everywhere.

And you realize that that probably is why you have become an ethnomusicologist: because of your curiosity about your own musical life and the musical lives of those others, remarkably different and remarkably recognizable anywhere - be it in Nitra, Hiroshima, St. John´s Newfoundland, Beijjng, Atsana, or wherever I will go to ICTM conferences in the future.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Fine Weekend



It's been a while - busy times, end of the year, you know how it goes. Soon I'm off to Kazakhstan to present a paper at the world conference for ethnomusicology. The paper will be on my shanty choir research, which runs for two years now after having been planned much earlier, and I am looking forward to present a paper on imagined sea life in the middle of a very arid steppe, in a country where the huge Aral lake has about vanished in the past decades.

Image result for foto aral meer droog

Me and my wife spent last weekend in Emden, the Northern German harbor town. We like to be in Germany, for many reasons. Some of my choir members see in Germany the Promised Land of Shantymen, and at least last weekend was an argument in favor of that thought.

On Saturday evening, the Berlin Shanty Crew Kreuzberg performed at a place called Zum Nordkai. Zum Nordkai is simply a quay in Emden's harbor where a guy called Klaas has set up a small alternative - yes, what is it;  a place where you can drink, eat, sit, camp, whatever. Shanty Crew Kreuzberg described their performance as 'Shanty-Woodstock in Emden', and it was. A very varied audience (fans, family, people from the neighborhood, people just happening to pass by) sat in the sun, took in the music, the view of each other, as well as drinks and various types of fish. Songs were near-exclusive in English, and from the announcements in between we could gather that the Berlin guys were not keen on commercialized shanty from the likes like Santiano or Ancora (nor were they for some reason on the GEMA, Germany's copy rights collecting organization, it seemed) and that they went for the more 'authentic' repertoire.


 
On Sunday morning, we went to the touristy harbor of Greetsiel because there would be music. And indeed there was: Shanty Chor Hude, a choir very much resembling the type of shanty choir I sing in, performed mainly German-language songs. Quite some people gathered as an audience, and we were welcomed by the chairman of the Commercial Society of Greetsiel. The sun shone nicely, the choir sang its songs and in between made funny announcements, and I wondered about the big differences and the big similarities between those two choirs.
 
 
 
I am not going to elaborate on that, but one thing was very clear: the meaning of music is not in the music. "Music is not a thing, it is human behavior", I cannot stress it enough; and this weekend that again showed. Both choirs partly shared a repertoire - they partly shared the same melodies, the some chords, the same lyrics. And at the same time, the two occasions could probably not have been more different: in the backgrounds of the choir members, the audiences, in the location, in the meanings attached to the words, the chords and the melodies. I might think the words, the chords and the melodies do the work, but that would be a mistake; but if I would think it's all in the heads, the minds, the ears of the beholders I would be equally mistaken. It's precisely in the in-between music does its work.
 
And I felt happy to have been in the in-between of two so different occasions in one weekend. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bookshelves and Biographicity

Yesterday I was at Groningen's 'Night of Art & Science' to give a presentation on the functions of music in everyday life.

After the presentation, a man asked me a good question. He said: "There is a saying that in order to know who someone is, you just have to study his bookshelf. Could you say the same about someone's music collection?"

The answer is clear: no. (I gave it so quickly that he remarked that I did not sound as a researcher at all...)

The secret of the meaning of music lies not in the music collection. It lies in the stories behind the music collection. It is possible to find two people with exact the same collection who attach a completely different meaning to that same collection because of their completely different experiences with the same music.

Simple and straightforward. But at the same time the bookshelf-idea shows one of the most persistent ideas about the value of music: that the value of music resides in 'the music' - and with 'the music' we mean the idea that music is a thing, a 'work'; and that there is something inherently valuable in that work. Eventually the discourse behind it in our culture becomes the discourse of artistic exclusivity: Beethoven in the collection: great! Alban Berg: even better! Rieu: no need at all to even think about taking thát seriously...

But, as I mentioned many times before, music is not a thing. It is human behavior. It is the relationship between the individual and the 'humanly organized sounds' the individual meets on his way through life. And the value of music lies in that relationship; not in 'the music' (as the musical connoisseur seems to think), and not in 'the individual' (as some psychologists seem to think), but precisely in the in-between.

And because this relationship is essentially biographical, music is a matter of what my Doktorvater (I love that word) Peter Alheit calls 'biographicity': the way in which we, on the basis of our biographical experiences, take in the world and try to make sense of it.

Music is the process of making sense of 'music'. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Music and Care

I was in a symposium some time ago on the use of music in care settings: in settings where music is used by professional musicians, music therapists or others to ameliorate the quality of life of people with dementia, for example, or mentally handicapped people.

Two movies were shown about the work of John Hoban, made by Willem Blok. In one of the movies, John as well as his wife Isabella Basombrio philosophized at length about the rationale behind their work. Much of what John said completely coincided with my own feelings: for example that every individual is essentially musical and that anybody has the right to be who s/he is, musically; that the essential contribution of working with music in care settings is 'to let them be' and to honor other people by listening to them; and that therefore being a musician means being and giving yourself,

"There is nothing easier than this work", said John - which may be true for him but maybe less so for those I work with, those trained as professional musicians in the exclusivity - rather than the inclusivity - of a conservatoire setting.

Monday, May 4, 2015

FC Groningen Wins the Cup Final

You may think: so what?

But the level of so-what-ness is quite low if you happen to live where I live, a village up-North bordering the city of Groningen. I had to drive to Amsterdam and back yesterday, and already at the end of the morning all fly-overs for the first 60 or so kilometers of my trip (yes, way into Frisian territory) were occupied by those FC Groningen fans staying at home greeting those FC Groningen fans on their way in cars and buses to the Rotterdam stadium where the Cup Final would be played at 6 pm. I had a festive trip.

It so happened that a couple of week ago I visited a game by FC Groningen with my ten years old son. I bought a ticket behind one of the goals, not realizing that this is the domain of the hardcore fans. A domain with its own rules, which became clear immediately; in the stadium you buy fixed seats but when we found our seats two guys had occupied them. So I said they were on our seats, whereupon they explained to me that in this particular part of the stadium seat numbers had no meaning whatsoever - you could sit anywhere you liked provided the seat was empty on your arrival. So we sat down beside them, me expecting at some point to be told that we were on the seats of others, but of course that never happened.