Ethnomusicology Blog Post 2: ‘Cultural Insider vs. Cultural Outsider’

Hello friends. In my ‘About’ post on this blog, I talked in some length about my ‘cultural identity’ as it relates to music, and on how it is likely that my parents being big fans of The Beatles probably quite literally formed my brain in the way it categorizes and makes sense of musical stimuli. Rather than choosing a Beatles song for this weeks analysis however, I’d like to go with something that more currently reflects my personal cosmology where music is concerned. For this reason, I’ve chose a track by the progressive jazz group, The Bad Plus. The track is an original song by the group called Flim. Take a listen:

There are so many things that connect me to this piece and to this band in general. I think the fist thing that needs to be addressed is the jazz-roots the band holds in their music. While known for being rule-benders (and sometimes outright rule-breakers), The Bad Plus, at its core, is a “jazz trio”. The feel and the timbre of the upright bass, piano, and stripped-down drum kit fall into a rich history of piano-centric American jazz. In some ways The Bad Plus tends to trick their audiences into thinking they are more of a true “jazz band” than what they are based simply on instrumentation and these familiar timbers. In addition to the familiar sounds of the instrumentation, The Bad Plus writes songs in a traditionally western framework. While a very original piece, you can hear the common chord changes and melodies that come from the tradition of cultural ‘blues-based’ music. In the case of Flim, I’m reminded almost of a lullaby a parent would sing to a young child.

Secondly, there is a strong sense of virtuosity and instrument mastery within The Bad Plus’s music. Even in a beautifully simplistic song like Flim, there is a sense that these are three musicians who really know what they’re doing. Our book addressed this and labeled it as part of a Value System and Hierarchy. I loved this section because it addresses the fact that the ways in which one appreciates music is almost an entirely subjective exercise. This is an interesting thought in the context of jazz, because the genre is definitely put on a pedestal in western cultures. I believe the members of The Bad Plus are enlightened in the way their music seems to play with this notion, and they often (as is the case with Flim) choose to show the power of simplicity over virtuosity. I find the space in this song (or the moments between the notes) to be particularly appealing to my sensibilities.

Lastly, I specifically chose this live version of the song because it speaks to my personal connection and obsession with live performance. While the music speaks for itself, there is definitely an aspect of showmanship in this performance. I think this is best illustrated by Dave King’s unique method of playing the drum kit, and how he uses the entire spectrum of noises that can possibly be made from the drum kit. Mr. King clicks and clacks his way through the performance and in the process the audience is drawn in visually. There is a subtle but very present theatrical quality to this performance.

For my ‘Cultural Outsider’ piece, I took a listen to Paul’s suggestions and picked the least-familial one to me, which ended up being Noh Theater Music of Japan. If you count yourself in the uninitiated like myself, take a look and a listen:

My first impression that strikes me about this particular musical theatre is that there is a powerful ‘forward motion’. There is a joy to the music that I can sense, but the overall goal of the piece is unknown to me. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry! This, I feel, is the root of my disconnection to this music.

The voices (which make up the vast majority of the ‘instrumentation’) seem to me to be highly stylized and character-driven. There is a lot of guttural ‘whooping’ and grunting. The accompanying instruments are entirely percussion based in the first video— mostly small drums and blocks. In the second video there is a flute and some excellent info on the structure of the music. It is describes that the flute (called a fue or noh-kan) can play independently to the percussion because the music naturally gives emphasis to rhythm before melody. It also is mentioned that the flute’s role (at least in this piece and likely others) is to try to express the emotional content of the lead character in the performance. The scale in which the flute performs is very foreign and unusual to my sensibilities, though I still discern pentatonic roots at its core. There is a ‘longing’ or sadness to the sound— at least to my ears. Vocally, there is not a lot of melody that I can pull out besides the calls and whoops.

One aspect that attracts me to this music is the space that exists within it. No single sound seems to topple on another— each has its place and order in the music. In this way the music has somewhat calm and peaceful effect on me, whatever its intended goal may be.

Hopefully this post has given you some insight into where my cultural identity or personal cosmology is coming from where music is concerned. Additionally, I hope you enjoyed perhaps taking a ride with me into some unknown waters with the striking music of the Noh style of Japanese theatre. Thanks as always for reading and commenting! I look forward to reading your posts this week!

-CS

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3 thoughts on “Ethnomusicology Blog Post 2: ‘Cultural Insider vs. Cultural Outsider’

  1. Chris, excellent post. Very well written with coherent ideas and substantiation. Bravo! (btw, Noh is awesome! If you want your brain melted some more seek out ancient Japanese court music, Gagaku, some of my favorite stuff). PK

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