Friday, January 12, 2018

A Multicultural Puzzle

I just ran across something that I find a bit puzzling. There was an article in a Canadian newspaper the other day, the Times/Colonist of Victoria, BC, where I used to live, about a collection of Indigenous music being nominated for a UNESCO program. That is excellent news, of course. The person who collected this was the Austrian-Canadian musicologist Ida Halpern who specialized in the music of the Indigenous peoples of the coast of British Columbia. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Her life was steeped in classical music, but Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia's Indigenous people, music she set out to prove was equal to that of Bach and Mozart.
See, that is the part that puzzles me. I'm very fond of the classic music of north India and the music of the Balinese and Javanese gamelan and have heard interesting music from Ghana and Zimbabwe, the traditional music of Japan and other places. Some of it is quite sophisticated, but in terms of structure and aesthetic power, these musics have limits that I suspect come from the lack of really good systems of notation. In the absence of that, what tends to happen is that a small core of traditions is preserved instead of the radical advances of individual composers--call it an inherent difference between "folk" music and "art" music. That is just a private theory and, yes, it would take a great deal of research to flesh it out. Call it an informed intuition.

The music of the Indigenous peoples of Canada that I have heard is particularly limited in its techniques and devices. There is not much rhythmic interest and even less harmonic interest. The vocal lines tend to focus on just a very few intervals, seconds and thirds mostly, and the impression one gets is of a single chanting tone, with a small amount of variation. In the absence of notation, of any kind of formal training for musicians and of the largely ritual function of the music, this is not surprising. If you want to sample a few fragments, you can go to Amazon and listen to the clips from this album:

Now why would someone with a PhD in musicology from the University of Vienna think that this was equal to the music of Bach and Mozart? Even for a second? And how would she go about proving it? That's what puzzles me.

I can only find one significant article on her work, by Kenneth Chen, and I can't find any original articles or books authored by her. Chen comments that most of her written scholarship was in the form of liner notes to the albums of field recordings. This passage from his paper reveals a bit of her approach:
Halpern did, however, do more than instantiate Kulturkreis concepts even in her early scholarship. Notably, in comparing West Coast First Nations and Euro-Western art musics, she reasoned that:
"The [former] may be considered melogenic [my emphasis]. Sometimes it is logogenic (world-bound, logos-word) as when the chief sings his potlatch song and recites some parts. Sometimes it can be pathogenic (pathos-full of emotion) as in a medicine man's song. Often, however, it passes these two primitive stages, blending already into the melogenic style which is the style of our western culture."
This argument downplays the "primitive" (logo- and pathogenic) features of First Nations musics in favor of the more "progressive" (melogenic) style found also in Euro-Western art music—a disconcerting move logically insofar as Halpern's inference (underlined) does not flow from what her evidence actually supports. From a phatic point of view, though, her rationale betrays her eagerness to present First Nations music-making as developmentally "like" Euro- Western art music-making: advanced rather than backward.
It is worth reading all of Mr. Chen's paper as it outlines some of the reasons why Halpern's pioneering work has received such little attention over the years. Perhaps one of the reasons why she worked so hard to record and preserve this music and also why she wanted to give a high aesthetic valuation to the music was a kind of collective guilt over the very harsh way that Indigenous culture was treated in the 19th and well into the 20sh centuries:
Halpern began and conducted much of her fieldwork during a period when it was actually illegal for First Nations cultures to be celebrated, much less preserved. From 1880 until 1951, the Indian Act forbade First Nations Peoples to partake of their own cultural activities, and Section 140(1) of its 1927 version specifically decreed that: "Every Indian or other person who engages in, assists in celebrating or encourages either directly or indirectly another to celebrate any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony ... is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months and not less than two months." Halpern herself acknowledged: "all of us could have been jailed and fined because of strict Canadian laws proscribing native culture at that time."
Institutionally, the Department of Indian Affairs, the Board of Education as well as the Church enforced a policy of cultural assimilation professedly with the honourable intention of "saving the Indians" by "civilizing" them—à la Western standards of civilization.
I am quoting from the Chen article. It is astonishing how severe these policies were and how we have swung to virtually the opposite policies today! If you will recall my series of posts on Stravinsky and the road to the Rite of Spring, it seems that the Soviet Union, where similar projects to record and preserve the folk music of Russia were being undertaken around this time as portable recording equipment became available, was far more "enlightened" than the colonial administrators in British North America and the subsequent Canadian government.

My conclusion is that, while Halpern certainly wanted to attribute aesthetic value to the music of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, she likely never said anything like that she regarded it as "equal to that of Bach or Mozart." For that we can likely blame an ideologically-blindered journalist.

I have ordered the album pictured above in CD form so that I can study Halpern's liner notes, so I may have more to add later on.

Here is one Nootka song available on YouTube:


Patrick said...

"how would she go about proving it"? Bryan, this seems to be something about which you worry a great deal. Even if if it were possible to 'objectively' prove, using current scientific methodology, one genre was superior to another, of what use would that be? I can't think of any, even in the realm of music education. Relax, lighten up and just enjoy and be uplifted by what you personally like.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Patrick and thanks for the comment. But let me unveil my emotional state! How we know stuff, which in philosophy is called an epistemological problem, is always of interest to me and perhaps should be a tad more interesting to everyone else as well. Let me give an example. I just read a front page article in a major newspaper that offered a revelation about a well-known politician. But when you read the article you discover that the whole story is based entirely on information "according to people familiar with the matter." That's it. All of the principles involved denied the story. This is not a piece of "news" that should be featured on the front page of a newspaper, this is mere rumor, gossip and innuendo. Similarly, every time I read a story about the difficult challenges facing a particular minority group and see that the writer is a member of that group I discount it all as "special pleading."

The standard in philosophy is that if you make a claim, you have to offer evidence and the stronger or more radical the claim, the stronger the evidence required. This used to be true of all scholarly pursuits, but lately the standards have been slipping.

So my request for evidence is not in itself evidence of my neurotic hangups, but rather an appeal to a standard scholarly procedure and my use of the word "prove" was not because I think that that word is ideal, I don't, but because it was used by the writer of the newspaper article.

Will Wilkin said...

The problem here seems to be in the connotations of the word "equal," which in the wake of the good and righteous liberation movements of the 20th century, has come to have a political sense not just legally but in terms of the respect and esteem deserved. Fair enough but just as no individuals are "equivalent," neither are the musics of Canadian First Nations equivalent to the western composers --and Bryan's analysis of the effects of sophisticated notation in preserving individual innovations and genius seems to me a good explanation for why western art music tends to be more sophisticated and varied than even the best folk or "roots" music. And this is coming from someone who loves a lot of folk and roots music, but more for the emotional and spiritual content than the musical technics, where notated compositions really do shine brightest.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Will. Good point. Also, let me add to my comment above. Patrick, you mention proving using current scientific methodology? As I have been trying to point out in a few of my posts on aesthetics and scientism, the methods of science do not give any access to aesthetic questions. Works of art have to be evaluated using aesthetic, not scientific criteria. Usually when scientists look at art they transform it into something else, often taking a psychological or neurological approach.

Will Wilkin said...

The journalist and the musicologist, like anybody else, are free to use whatever words they like, and sometimes we need to avoid an overly-semantic approach to understanding the spirit of their ideas. Personally, I would have avoided the word "equal" unless used as a describing-helping word (no doubt grammarians have a better term for this function) such as "equally moving" or "equally XXXXX," since without the more specific adjective we are left in an ambiguous place where "equal" could mean anything and will only invite this kind of debate.

Not being familiar with the First Nations music, but drawing on my deep love for some American bluegrass and country gospel and other roots music, I can say some of it is indeed "equally moving" and "equally dear to my heart" as my favorite classical music. Early in my listening career I learned there are many elements that can, in combination, make music great, and it is not necessary to have them all for the music to get right into your heart. An example is virtuosity, which I have always admired but when contemplating a great Beatles or Paul Simon song I find virtuosity is not required for music to take me away like the wild wind. Does that make those songwriters "equal" to Beethoven? No, a great apple will never be a great orange.

Bryan Townsend said...

Some great points about the incommensurability of works of art. People likely often wonder, in the absence of objective scientific criteria, just how do musicians and critics evaluate works of art? What are the aesthetic criteria? Those are good questions. I think that works of art, since they cannot be reduced to the numbers of science, have to be approached from various perspectives. There are, for example, works of great historic importance such as Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo or Debussy's piano prelude Voiles. There are works that deeply integrate, for example, the religious and the aesthetic such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion. There are works of surpassing emotional depth such as the Beethoven late string quartets. There are works of sublime delight such as the Mozart piano concertos and so on and on. In other words, evaluative criticism in music can involve a surprisingly large palette of techniques and aspects. And at the end of that process there will be no crude claims that such and such a piece or genre is equal or unequal to any other. However, one can certainly make the observation that the aesthetic purpose, methods and materials of this work or genre are far more (or far less) sophisticated or have a greater or lesser capacity for expression than another.