Thursday, August 24, 2006

From Savane to symphonies: Music as communal experience

Funny, isn't it, how things come together sometimes.

For a few weeks now I have owned and have wanted to post something on the last album that Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré made before he died of bone cancer this past spring, Savane. But I have been wanting to put it into some sort of context other than the mere it's-a-great-album-go-get-it context. one thing I knew I wanted to say about it is that it is an embodiment of folk music in the purest sense of that term. But how to illustrate that so as to make it substantive?

Enter NPR. On today's edition of All Things Considered there was a story called "Leadbelly's 'Old Man' and the Work Song Tradition". While the title is self-explanatory, what was fascinating to me was the piece's take on how work songs came into being and how they function in culture. As you'll hear in the piece, several versions of this song's lyrics are in existence (other examples of American songs with multiple versions are "John Henry," "Stagger Lee," and "Frankie and Johnny"), and other songs have the melody in common, or almost so, with "Old Man." This is because, the reporter says, workers along, in this case, the waterfronts up and down the Mississippi had a shared storehouse of melodies and images from the world of work, from worker-management relations, etc. The songs would get composed and passed on to other workers, and they to others, and sometimes the words would change to reflect more accurately the immediate geography or history of the place. Everyone in that world of work was a proprietor of that storehouse. The version recorded by Leadbelly, in such a culture, is not necessarily superior to other versions; it just happens to be the version he recorded.

More below the fold.

It makes sense that cultures in which work is communal would produce and have songs in common. The songs, like the work, are not the product of the individual but of the shared labor of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individuals. Somehow, it's harder to see people working in cubicles ever producing a similar body of work.

Touré's album's power derives from its origins in a communal culture: Savane's songs are about land-holding, courtship, the summoning of spirits, even circumcision. Only a couple of songs are expressly about individuals, but they are embodiments of highly-regarded communal values. It's more than fitting, then, that we would also find on this album a song that celebrates work as a communal good, "Machengoidi" ("What Is Your Contribution?"). Listen to the easy rhythm of this piece, one of the slower songs on the album: it's easy to imagine oneself swinging an ax or threshing wheat in time to this melody.

One might think that a symphony hall is a world away from the Sahara, in more ways than one, but this very evening my dean sent something to those of us in the Humanities and Fine Arts division that might make us think otherwise. (Apologies for not having a link; I tried googling this quote but with no luck.)
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is not optimistic about the impact of technology on the symphony world. He states, "It is dangerous in that it isolates the listener from the world. Society, as a communal experience, is at risk. Technology makes it possible to live completely isolated from other people. The real issue is how to make it clear to the symphony audience that this is a communal experience--it is the opposite of an iPod experience."

Salonen is, of course, talking about listening as communal activity, which is certainly valuable and important. But that is still pretty rarified air; an orchestra, after all, is at base a delivery system for music as well. In the world of the work-song and of Savane, there's much less distinction between performer and audience. It is an irony that technology's capacity to store such vast quantities of music--a job that once was the task of an entire community--now makes that need, at least, for that community obsolete. The iPod has made us audiences of one--and for our own tastes at that. But the digitalization of music has also made it possible to share samples of it with a much greater audience than could fit in my living room . . . difficult to say whether I am co-opting technology here or it has co-opted me.

I'm under no delusions here: indeed, as I write this, I'm also listening to my computer's iTunes songs that I've put in myself from my CD collection and is presently set on Shuffle. iTunes tells me I have 5 days and almost 20 hours' worth of music. Drifting about as I am on this sea of songs--not one of which, though, is a sea chantey, stories like the NPR piece and albums like Savane serve as gentle but powerful reminders of the centuries-old power of music-making as a communal activity and what we, in this corner of the world, may have already irretrievably lost.

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Jim Sligh said...

Esa-Pekka Salonen is speaking to music; the same thing struck me a week or so ago in relation to film, and the moviegoing experience vs. the solitary one provided for by technology.

Thirty years ago, Boston had dozens of single screen independent movie theaters, showing an eccentric variety of films old and new, arranged by single curators with specific tastes, attended by an audience. Today, we're down to three - Coolidge Corner, the ailing Brattle, and the Harvard Film Archive.

The film and art students that made all of those theaters viable economically in the 60s and 70s have since switched to Netflix and laptop DVDs, where the selection, convenience, and quality has never been greater.

And yet - the experience of sitting in a pitch-black room with a crowd and watching something forty feet tall talk to you is wholly different from the solitary, headphones-wearing study of a 15-inch computer screen.

I can't speak to the scientific veracity, but somebody once told me that our brains actually process television and film in different ways - in the theater, we show alpha waves. All of our attention is focused onto the screen, undivided, and our minds are active. Television, by contrast, takes place in rooms full of distraction, engages beta waves, the brain passive and inert.

There is something less overwhelming, less visceral, less immediate about watching something on DVD instead of in a packed theater. You can always pause it and walk away. You can keep the thing from getting to you - and good art should, in some way, get to you.

All this said - and it's a long comment - there are differences. The moviegoing experience I'm describing never blurred the line between performer and audience the way music did, though it seems to me that the advent of recordings and radio made music as much an industrial mass art form as film was always.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by, first of all.
I would have to agree that there's something comparable for an audience in the experiences of watching a film in a theater and attending a live performance of an orchestra or band. I don't have the science for this, either, but it would have to do with the audience's immersion in a sensory experience that isn't under its control.
Communal music-making, though, is another matter. In that instance, one is both audience and artist, able to manipulate these commonly-held materials that nevertheless aren't fully under one's control due to tradition and the simple fact that they didn't originate with the artist/audience. Another sort of immersion, one that isn't a surrender, as theater/concert-going is.