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A Space for Music: Musical Cultures

1. What’s Universal About Music

Wherever African drumming is happening at Tufts, there you will find David Locke, associate professor of music. An ethnomusicologist and director of Agbekor Drum and Dance Society, he has immersed himself in the music of Ghana and other cultures to the point where he can appreciate what all music has in common.

Soccer is universal. wherever people play futbol, the field, the ball, the rules, and the object of the game are identical. The same cannot be said for music. Although it is heard in all societies, music comes in a staggering variety of settings and styles. Humanly organized sound (a handy cross-cultural definition of music) is played on so many different instruments and for so many different reasons that its variety stands out far more than its commonality.

Yet music is often described as a universal language. In our yearning to communicate across barriers of race, geography, and history, we sometimes ascribe to music powers it simply doesn’t have. It is true that we can listen and respond to the musical communication of people whose mother tongues make no sense to us. But it does not follow that we can respond meaningfully to all the world’s music. Nor is there any guarantee that what we hear is what we were meant to hear; only open-minded inquiry into the performers’ intentions can determine that.

Though music may not be a universal language per se, that doesn’t preclude us from looking for elements of music that all cultures share. And indeed there are many.

Sound itself is a musical universal that blurs the boundary between humans and other creatures. Whales, doves, cicadas, frogs, and coyotes make musical sounds that not only have value within their species but also draw humans into an essential, ineffable dimension of the natural world of which we are part. We connect.

Similarly, even when we hear music that sounds strangely different from our own, we sense our participation in a species-wide phenomenon. The voice, the most universal musical instrument, evokes our common humanity even though the bass rumbling of a Tibetan Buddhist chant sounds drastically different from the treble skirl of a Scottish folk ballad.

Despite their differences in shape, all musical instruments can be classified according to the resonant material that people set into vibration: string (chordophone), membrane (membranophone), air (aerophone), or the solid body of the instrument (idiophone). Across cultures, the musical sounds that people create on these instruments are more orderly than any other sonic behavior. Compared to spoken language, music is more redundant in its pitch, loudness, timing, and prosody.

The social organization of musicians during performance and the mind/body response to performed music also are highly patterned. Music organizes us.

Because sound is invisible and travels around physical barriers, people use music to reach out beyond the material plane toward a spiritual dimension. Everywhere, music is used in religious worship to gather the faithful in focused action. Through music, people experience a domain beyond themselves, whether in thought and feeling or in the visceral transformation of shamanism, spirit mediumship, or the Holy Spirit. In its very nature, music encourages this sort of analogical, metaphorical, synesthetic manner of thought.

By blending sonic, social, and cultural features in myriad ways, humans have created a cornucopia of musical traditions. The amazing thing is that those traditions have as much in common as they do.

Adam Gardner

2. The Greening of Rock

You’re an always-on-the-road alternative rock band with thousands of diehard fans. Why not start a movement? Why not (as Guster’s Adam Gardner, A95, and his fellow Tufts alumni asked themselves) make the music industry more eco-friendly?

My band, Guster—formed with my Tufts classmates Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel when we were freshmen—has sustained itself for the past 15 years thanks to the close relationship we have with our fans. We recently took advantage of this relationship to spread environmental awareness and action on a project called the Campus Consciousness Tour. This tour was created by Reverb, a nonprofit environmental organization started by my wife, Lauren Sullivan, J96, and me.

Reverb’s mission is to “green” the music industry while educating and inspiring individual fans, institutions, and corporations to lessen their impact on the planet. Reverb works with artists to green their tours by fueling tour buses with biodiesel (a vegetable oil–based fuel that can be used in any diesel engine); by offsetting carbon emissions with contributions that fund renewable energy; by setting up on-site recycling programs; and by using products like organic cotton merchandise, post-consumer recycled paper goods, and biodegradable food service items. Reverb also urges fans to offset their carbon emissions from driving to and from the show.

Those kinds of green practices were central to Guster’s Campus Consciousness Tour. Reverb has also worked with the Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne, Jack Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Barenaked Ladies, and many other artists.

It’s been amazing to see the support from the music community. From veteran artists like Neil Young to new bands such as 30 Seconds to Mars, musicians are adding significant momentum to the environmental movement.

Historically, it’s not new to marry music with social action—in fact, much music was born out of these movements. Although people often think of the sixties as the pinnacle for the meshing of music and activism, music has always played a role in social movements, from early African-American spirituals to politicians’ campaign songs. It could be because music is so good at tapping into people’s emotions—or maybe it’s just that musicians have direct access to large crowds of people who are interested in what they have to say. Whatever the reason, Guster is excited to have a role in a movement that is so important to so many.

In a 2006 MTV/CBS News poll, 13- to 24-year-olds cited the environment as the number-one problem their generation will have to address. Eighty-one percent of these young people believe something needs to be done right away. Demonstrating to fans that environmental alternatives are viable choices we can all make today has given me a renewed passion for getting up on stage.

Stephanie Blythe in The Sailor-Boy and the Falcon

3. Classical Music Is Relevant

Paul Siskind, A84, could have stayed in biology—his major at Tufts—but T.J. Anderson (see “Composers on Composing”) inspired him to pursue composition. Now on the faculty of the Crane School of Music (SUNY Potsdam), which just premiered his latest opera, Siskind is more convinced than ever that classical music has a timely role.

In recent decades, much has been said about the declining relevance of classical music. The question of relevance is of great concern to me, not just in my work as a composer—after all, I must have some justification to continue writing operas, chamber music, and symphonic works—but also as a teacher at one of the oldest and largest music teacher training programs in the country. Charges of irrelevance reflect a general misunderstanding of the social function of classical art forms, as well as the populist perspective that permeates our country’s approach to education.

The word relevant is derived from a Latin word meaning “to raise up.” Yet it is commonly used to mean “having obvious or practical pertinence.” These meanings are subtly contradictory, reflecting music’s different roles in society.

Many cultural theorists divide music into three broad categories, according to social function: folk, classical, and popular. All types of music provide entertainment, but each type serves other purposes as well. For example, folk music passes along the cultural values that bind together a community. Sea chanteys were sung for entertainment, but they also taught sailors important lessons about their work.

Classical music (sometimes called art music) entertains, but its defining social function is its intention to inspire and enlighten the listener. In all cultures that developed classical music traditions—western Europe, ancient Persia, northern India, China (Beijing opera), and Indonesia (gamelan), to name a few—classical music was primarily the province of an educated elite, which supported the classical arts through government subsidies, religious institutions, and individual patronage.

Therein lies the “relevance” of classical music, according to the original meaning of the word: it intends to raise up its audience, to inspire them to a more enlightened existence. Today that kind of elevating experience is available not just to the privileged classes but to anybody who wants it.

Opera might seem an unlikely example; in many respects, it is the most rarified Western musical genre. Yet, because of its relationship to drama, it can also provide the uninitiated with a point of entry into the world of classical music.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have the premiere of my second opera, The Sailor-Boy and the Falcon, produced at my college. It’s a full-length traditional opera, performed with classical orchestra. For this production, one of the famous alumnae of our school, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, returned to campus to perform a role. Since the Crane School of Music emphasizes educational outreach, students involved in the production visited area school districts and presented workshops about opera, the background of the Sailor-Boy story, and so on. Local students were then bused in for a performance, along with backstage tours, visits with the artists, and discussions about the opera.

This experience was “relevant” because we are located in a very isolated and economically depressed region of northern New York. Many of the students had never seen a live theater performance before, much less an opera. Yet they got to hear and meet a Metropolitan Opera star who had risen from humble beginnings.

Even more important, the character in the opera that Ms. Blythe portrayed was a Saami woman (the Saami are the indigenous people of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia). Many of the students who came to our outreach program reside on the nearby Akwesasne Mohawk reservation. They engaged in discussions about the similarities in the experiences of the Saami and of Native Americans. It was remarkable to watch the crowd of fidgety students become mesmerized by 90 minutes of opera performed by a renowned classical singer.

Experiences like this fully attest to the “relevance” of classical music, in the truest sense of the word.

Illustration by Darren Hopes

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