It sounds like music, it looks like music, but is it?

I find the concept of music to be extremely subjective. As we discussed in class, music is a way of expressing truth. In our society, we have strict rules about what constitutes music, but these rules are far from arbitrary. We create these rules to help us define the truth that we search for in the world. Additionally, music, in my scope, needs to tell some sort of story. If I hear something that both tells a story and highlights a truth, then I consider it to be music. Music is also impossible to define without a clear sense of context. What is music to me may not be music to someone else of a different culture or from a different country. Also, when I hear something without any situational context, I may not know whether or not I consider it music. A worldwide musical education is clearly vital for understanding. For example, I don’t think it’s acceptable for someone who only listens to pop music to hear something experimental or unknown to them and immediately cast it off as noise without knowing the history of that genre and culture.

This first audio selection comes from Rutherford Chang, an artist who is currently displaying a work called “We Buy White Albums” at the Recess Gallery in SoHo. As the title suggests, Chang buys The Beatles’ White Album and sets the gallery up as a pseudo record store stocked with 693 original copies of the album, all in various stages of wear and tear. As part of the exhibit, Chang made a recording with many of the albums in his vinyl collection playing in unison. The result, which I included below, is this piece, entitled “Side 1 x 100.” In the United States, most, if not all, people will agree that the songs on this album are musical. Even if someone does not like the Beatles (which is also very rare,) they will not dispute that the White Album fits the criteria of music. Yet, when the many copies are layered on top of one another, the album’s definition as music becomes much less obvious.

The beginning of the audio piece sound very much like the original, only with slight distortion. But by the end of the piece, the songs themselves are an unrecognizable conglomeration of noise: ethereal, repeating vocals bobbing in a sea of jangly percussion and muddled sound. When I first heard the piece a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what to call what I had just heard. Is it music just because it once was or is it just unstructured noise, layered to a point of non-musicality? I didn’t feel comfortable labeling it as anything until I knew more about the artist’s vision.

Rutherford Chang was influenced by the white cover of the White Album. It is a blank slate, acutely susceptible to wear and tear, both accidental and purposeful. This led him to collect the album and study the vastly different weathering among the original copies. When he overlaid the albums, it was just an extension of his goal to observe the relationship between time and art. After reading an interview with Chang and some reviews of the exhibit, I have a vastly different opinion on the work. I believe that “Side 1 x 100” is music. Although the sound does not fit our cultural description of music in a variety of ways, it tells a story and shows a truth. As an art piece, it tells the collective stories of the album and highlights the variety of ways that the same medium can age. Each album is individually special, with unique skips and distortions. When they all combine together, the result is an unrecognizable mash of musical sound. It made me rethink what I consider to be rock music: structured sound, typically with vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. Yet when the structure of sound is removed, my entire perception of music is altered. Context is, in my opinion, of the utmost importance when deciding if sound can be classified as music. I believe that Chang’s piece is music, but I am also aware that I came to this conclusion using my limited scope of Western musical experience.

An interview and some other info if you’re interested:

This audio selection is entitled “Factory Sounds” and can be found on YouTube. The clip features the rhythmic sound of a factory machine, working to a steady beat. Among this machine noise, shuffling and other movement can be heard. There are a variety of other sound bytes like “Factory Sounds” that feature other types of ambient noise from other more intense sounds like a highway during rush hour to soft waves breaking on the shore.

In “Factory Sounds” the beat of the machine becomes highly repetitive, thumping and whooshing away at the same tempo for four minutes and fifty-five seconds. One could probably argue that this piece, with its steady rhythm is some sort of percussive work. It does have identifiable qualities of most music, like a rhythm part and a set structure. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in other cultures, this piece could be considered musical. It gives a strong beat to work by, a variety of timbres within the sounds from the thumping to the whooshing. If someone is a worker, they may have a very important, personal story that is provoked by the piece. Additionally, they may find it to hold a certain truth because it is relevant to their life and experiences. Therefore, this piece could be considered music to someone who sees truth in the piece and analyzes the sound as a form of storytelling.

Personally, I don’t consider this piece to be musical. I don’t see the truth or the story within the rhythmic thumping. Although I am able to see how others could relate the factory sounds as music due to certain personal experiences, I, with my current set of experiences, do not find it to be musical. To me, these sounds only represent the monotonous drone of the machines that create the noise. This drone does not tell me a story or highlight a truth of any kind.

The audio clip:

Both of the selections that I chose could be considered music or not, depending on who is listening. Music is only music in context. Everyone who listens to a piece comes from a very distinct background and may analyze a work in a variety of greatly contrasting ways. I have considered the first piece of art to be music, maybe because of my geography and interest in abstract art. Because I have never worked in a factory and also get annoyed by monotonous ticking like that of a clock and the constant banging of construction work, I did not consider the second piece to be music. Music is all about context, experience, and finding a personal truth in the waves of sound.


Éthiopiques and the Golden Age of Ethiopian Music

         Ethiopia has a complex and unique musical history. In the 1950s-60s, during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian contemporary music grew to incredible heights. This time, referred to as the “golden age” of Ethiopian music, created music that was lost during the communist rule that began in the 70s. Yet, this music of the past has regained popularity both in Ethiopia and around the world, with the help of Francis Falceto, curator and producer of Ethiopian music, through his Éthiopiques series under the French Buda Musique label. Many credit Falceto with the popularization and dispersal of golden age Ethiopian music, but this has some problematic repercussions. Falceto is a white man from France, financially benefitting from Ethiopian music that was already recorded by Ethiopians and is only compiled by Falceto. This begs the questions: is it inappropriate and invasive for a French man to produce Ethiopian music even if the music itself is a valuable cultural asset?

            In the late 50s- 60s, during the final years of Haile Selassie I’s rule, Ethiopian contemporary music began to bloom. In 1948, an edict declared that music could only be recorded by a government agency, headed by Hagere Fiker Maheber. (Tarte) This took the freedom of music production out of the hands of the people and caused outrage. Any Ethiopians who tried to record their own music would be exiled. (Briggs 43) Yet this time period was also one of the first of a global musical exchange. Musicians in Ethiopia were able to listen to records from other countries, like the United States. They were listening to jazz, blues, and funk among other genres. Additionally, Haile Salassie I was considered to be the messiah to Rastafarianism, so reggae music was also prevalent in Ethiopia during this time period. (Henze) In the late 60s, musician Amha Eshete was fed up with the governmental control of the recording industry. He founded Amha Records, an independent music label that in only 6 years released 103 singles. Although Maheber was at first frustrated, Amha Records’ overwhelming popularity actually led to the removal of the edict. (Tarte) Amha Records’ success inspired the creation of two other highly influential Ethiopian record labels: Philips Ethiopia Records and Kaifa Records. (Briggs 43) The musical revolution was centered around the cosmopolitan center of Addis Ababa. The rise of the recording industry properly complemented the huge musical growth that was occurring in the nightlife of Addis Ababa and in the creation of “ethio-jazz” clubs. (Tarte) In 1975, the imperial era ended in bloody combat, the communist Derg took over, Amha Records closed, and a late night curfew was enforced, killing Addis’ nightclub culture. (Briggs 44) Yet, Kaifa Records was still able to secretly produce some records and the scene did not die out completely.

            Although some of this highly influential and historically significant music was recorded through these labels, much of it disappeared over time. Many Ethiopians of the current day complain of the use of synthesizers in contemporary Ethiopian music and display disappointment about its trajectory. Francis Falceto, curator and producer of Buda Musique’s Éthiopiques series agrees with this sentiment. In his mind, the current musical movements in Ethiopia are coming from the “lost generation.” Falceto listened to this Ethiopian music of the late 70s after a lot of its production had ceased. He quickly became deeply invested in the music and its culture and wanted to find a way to share it with the world. Through Buda Musique, he created the Éthiopiques series in the 1990s, re-releasing albums produced by Amha Records and Kaifa Records, among others. Amha Eshete had been exiled by Derg and couldn’t be found, and Ali Tango, founder of Kaifa Records chose to work with Falceto. Currently, Falceto has released 28 volumes of Éthiopiques and has received fame in niche communities of Ethiopians and Ethiopian-music lovers. This series, being one of the largest and most publicized collections of Ethiopian music ever produced is now very much associated around the world with Ethiopian identity and culture.

            Falceto explains that most of the responses he receives are positive. In an interview with Tadias, a New York area magazine for Ethiopian Americans, Falceto explains, “The feedback from Ethiopia and Ethiopians is mostly warm and supportive.” He states that his audience is comprised of both the nostalgic adults who were teens in the 50s and 60s and their children who are now impressed by their parents’ music and by the history of their country. (Tadias) Éthiopiques’ success has led to EthioSonic, a series of contemporary Ethiopian music produced by Falceto. Music from the Éthiopiques series also appeals to non-Ethiopian listeners. For example, Éthiopiques volume 4, a compilation of two rare albums by the famous Ethiopian funk artist Mulatu Astatke, was used in Broken Flowers, a Jim Jarmusch film. (Buda Musique) This series is a valuable asset to the preservation of Ethiopian musical history for multiple generations of Ethiopians.

         Although it is clearly of musical value, Éthiopiques must also be viewed through the lens of cultural invasion and financial capital. Falceto is a white, French man who is producing the music of a culture that is not his own. He is then being commended for spreading this music to the world both by foreigners and Ethiopians. It is difficult to be involved with another culture’s art without somehow altering this. Falceto is not a fan of the modern musical movement of Ethiopia and has republished the music from the golden age with the goal of revitalizing the movement. In an interview with Addis Rumble, a news source from Addis Ababa, he asks, “Where are the Amha Eshetes, Kassahoun Eshetes, and Ali Tangos of today? Hope seems now in the hands and minds of a younger generation, hungry and concerned enough for a real change…” (Addis Rumble) These statements beg the question; who is Falceto to decide how the musical culture should be altered? This question must again be asked when viewing his new EthioSonic label in which he gathers musicians together to create new music reminiscent of the golden age. In the role of contemporary music producer, he now has the power to shape what is recorded, edited, and published. Falceto’s musical aspirations are not purposefully insidious, but they end up being culturally invasive and highly problematic.

         One must view Falceto’s motives also through a financial lens. Although it is obvious that he is producing this music out of deep love, he is also gaining financial capital. Buda Musique is a small record label with only a portion of its profits coming from Falceto’s series. In his interview with Tadias, he asserts “Curating [the] Éthiopiques series requires a lot of perseverance and endurance, and some masochism, probably. And the fact that Ethiopian CDs are available in Western music shops doesn’t mean they sell like hot cakes.” (Tadias) He is attempting to say that producing Éthiopiques is a labor of love with very little financial reward. Yet, there is still capital gained. Falceto is re-releasing music already released by Ethiopian labels and making money. The two Astatke albums compiled into Éthiopiques volume 4 and used in Broken Flowers were originally released by Amha Records. (Egon) Now, Buda Musique is reaping those profits. Some affiliated Ethiopian parties are making money, but not a significant amount. Additionally, there was a recent controversy in which Buda Musique retained the copyrights of some artists whose music was used on volumes of Éthiopiques and did not pay them fairly. In response, Falceto only tried to displace the blame elsewhere within the larger organization.

         There is no denying the serious faults of both Falceto’s approach and from reaping benefits from someone else’s culture, in general. These issues should not take away from Éthiopiques’ cultural value in that it fosters Ethiopian identity and informs the world on the incredible and unique music that was made in Ethiopia during the 50s and 60s. Instead, the importance of this music must be viewed in conjunction with the problematic elements of Falceto’s mission.

Presentational and Participatory Music

The concept of a concert is central to Western classical music but is not in the vast majority of musical cultures throughout the world. Yet, as areas are colonized both politically and culturally, musical culture is also changed. In a chapter about Zimbabwean music from Thomas Turino’s Music as Social Life, he discusses the shift in Zimbabwean musical culture from heterogeneous and participatory to homogeneous and presentational. The world’s image of Zimbabwean music became directed by the cosmopolitan culture among the new middle class in urban centers. There is something very appealing about an organized version of a country being portrayed to the world, but it marginalizes the musical experiences of most people. A shift in musical culture from participatory to presentational has profound effects on the act of making music and that music’s reception. For instance, imagine a classically trained philharmonic orchestra performing in a small village in a country whose inhabitants speak a totally different language and live a communal, farming lifestyle. When the orchestra came to perform, they would not understand the music or its presentation. In fact, the presentation might be just as foreign as the music itself. Western classical music has its own inherent rules of performance in regard to physical presentation, attire, skill level, audience participation, decorum, and musical education. In Western classical music, the performers dress in very nice attire and it is expected that the audience will as well. The audience is expected to only clap between pieces and not between movements. Noise during the performance should be nonexistent. The music of this fictional village is probably very different in its performance, which is participatory as opposed to presentational. When the classical music is performed in this setting, all parties are affected. This change in space may also cause both the performers and the audience to be uncomfortable.

Buda Musique

Buda Musique is a French record label founded in 1986 in Paris that specializes in World Music. Since then, they’ve produced almost 500 volumes. Their most popular series, with over 300 volumes is called Musique du monde and features music from a variety of areas. Their most well-known and controversial collection is called Ethiopiques and features Ethiopian and Eritrean music, compiling works from Ethiopian-produced albums from the 60s and 70s. They have produced many volumes of African music, but the record company also features music of Ireland and European Jews among others. Buda Musique is a small, non-profit label that generally attracts those who are already fans of world music. Thus, there is no information online about profits or sale history. As Francis Falceto, an editor with the label explains, it is definitely a niche market regardless of how much media attention the volumes get. He describes the process of finding Ethiopian musicians, recording, arranging copyrights, and publishing the music to be a very tedious process. Since the production of the Ethiopiques series, some Ethiopian musicians associated with the project complained that Buda Musique did not pay them fairly and retained the copyrights to many of the songs recorded. In response, Falceto only tried to displace the blame elsewhere within the organization.

The Culmination of Oberlin’s Brazil Week

On Wednesday, I attended the final event of Oberlin’s Festa Brasiliera. It was a Samba dance in Hales gym. I entered the gym at 8:30, as the half hour lesson before the performance was culminating. One of the PI ensembles was performing and as each song ended, more instrumentalists joined the band until it featured multiple singers and percussionists, and a sax and trumpet, among others. The audience was dancing and exchanging samba steps. Because a friend and I had arrived late, we were a little confused as to what was happening, but mini workshops were taking place all around us. I was able to pick up lots of little steps from my friends around me and was eventually able to dance to the beat. I was surprised to learn that some of my friends are incredible dancers. There was a woman teaching some beautiful and complicated moves to a large group. An adorable little boy was cartwheeling back and forth in front of the band. It was awesome to hear Oberlin students playing and dancing to Samba and was a great way to end O Brasil!

tUnE-yArDs’ “Real Live Flesh”

(This link is to a live performance of the song. I couldn’t find the studio recording online. To hear the recorded version of the song, search it on Spotify.)

This is an example of high-fidelity music although it does display elements of Studio Audio Art Music. This song by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs is made up of lots of sounds that appear to be electronic and separate elements that are later pieced together. In reality, she performs this work live using only her voice, a drum, and a loop pedal. Additionally, the music is meant for audience enjoyment rather than purely art. 


Pelo Telefone

Upon first listen, “Pelo Telefone” doesn’t sound very much like other Brazilian pieces that are more prototypical to the Samba genre. The song lacks traditional Samba instruments, especially in regard to percussion. Instruments such as the surdo, tamborim, repinque, cuica, and pandeiro are missing from the mix. Instead, the song features a stringed instrument that sounds almost like a ukulele. From my limited knowledge of Brazilian instruments, I would guess that it’s the violao. The song also features a voice and a clarinet-like instrument. This song does not soud like a modern Samba because it is actually Maxixe. Maxixe is a genre of Brazilian music sometimes referred to as the Brazilian tango. This song is from the year 1917, before samba was popularized. Maxixe developed from both European and Afro-Brazilian music traditions, which can easily be heard in the sound. This form of music mimicked the European polka and march forms that were popular at the time. We can see the Brazilian elements in the syncopation of rhythms and the trilling and articulation of the voice. The clarinet-like instrument makes the song sound very typical of its era, similar to music that was coming out of the US and Europe at the same time. In this way, it doesn’t embrace Brasilidade in the same way that music does later on. Maxixe is a genre that greatly contributed to Samba.

Connections Between the Shona Bira and the Afro-Brazilian Candomble Festa

Although taking place on separate continents, the Shona Bira of Zimbabwe and the Candomble ritual of Brazil share elements of performance and meaning. It is not surprising that the Candomble festa shares common characteristics with the Bira, because the Candomble is a West African tradition within the Afro-Brazilian religion of Brazil. The music performed in the rituals is very authentic to West African tradition with barely any European influence. Although the Shona Bira is from Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, we can easily trace connections between the two traditions. The Bira is a ritual performed by Shona people to honor, consult, or right the deceased. Shona tradition stresses the importance of ancestors. The term “musha” means both home and where ancestors are buried, highlighting the importance of the dead and community. Similarly, the Candomble festa is a community-wide, religious event that celebrates ritual activities like births. The Afro-Brazilian people celebrate these community events by worshipping Orixas, or powerful, African Gods. Both of these participatory traditions are meant to bring the respective communities together through spiritual connection. The main difference is that the Bira focuses on the dead whereas the Candomble often focuses on the living. Both rituals are what we consider to be participatory events. What this means is that all community-members are encouraged to participate and the line is blurred or nonexistent between participants and performers. In the Bira, all people are allowed to play mbiras and drums, regardless of experience, skill, age, and gender. In their view, less talent brings a greater variety in musical performance and can be a positive asset to the group. Sometimes, people are taken off of instruments and replaced when they are not performing well with the other participants, but the culture overall is extremely inclusive. The Candomble is also a participatory event, but slightly less so. The community comes together to sing and dance regardless of skill. The drumming, though, is always performed by a group of male musical specialists. A main component of the ritual is the possession of community members by the Orixas. These possessions regularly happen to dancing and singing participants, but never to the drummers, who need to keep up the 12-beat toque cycle. In this regard, the event is not completely participatory, with certain exclusive and specialized roles. Additionally, although both traditions feature different instruments, they both rely on percussion as a backbone.

The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins


Amiri Baraka’s Blues People is a study published in 1963 that highlights Afro-American music and its culture. It follows the history of African Americans and then the creation of their musical culture. In the chapter, “Primitive Blues & Primitive Jazz,” Baraka begins his explanation of the origins of these two genres and their connection to the culture at the time. Just a few years later, directors Les Blank and Skip Gerson came out with a documentary on the blues performer, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Hopkins was a famous blues guitarist in the 1960s who recorded almost a thousand songs during his lifetime. The documentary of Lightnin’ Hopkins and the explanation of blues in the Baraka chapter have quite a lot in common. The film displays Hopkins’ life not chronologically or historically, but through everyday events within his community. In the end, the film isn’t really centered around him at all, but rather his music within the community. The Baraka piece discusses how slavery is one of the roots of blues. Slaves weren’t allowed to have their own identities, but they could collectively sing work songs to unite their community and get through really strenuous labor. Therefore, collective song was a really important element of the creation of a sense of power within an oppressed community.  It was a way to get out daily frustrations when they couldn’t actually voice their pain in spoken word.  Therefore, when blues eventually developed, as a combination of English ballads, spirituals, and shouts, it continued to call out the pains of everyday life. Instead of complaining about slavery though, the songs of primitive blues sang of new struggles, like an inability to get money now that it was so necessary in their everyday lives. Hopkins explains that the blues has progressed to a point where it can be sung about anything.  Yet even when they’re not explicitly protesting and bemoaning a certain event, blues songs often return back to a complaint of a certain unfair social structure. The film explores the blues by showing snippets of African-American life in Texas, where Hopkins is from. The film centers on these beautiful shots and informative clips as opposed to directly showing examples or explaining the culture. This mirrors the explanation in Baraka’s chapter of the blues’ role within communities as a casual and unstructured form of music that was informal enough to just mesh with communities rather than be a separate and removed performance art.

Ladrang Kembang Lintang

The Ladrang Kembang Lintang is a Javanese Gamelan piece from Central Java. The piece begins, like Kembang Pacar, with sporadic sound, like the random ringing of wind chimes. Underneath these bell sounds is the low and peaceful singing of the suling, the Gamelan flute. When listening to the piece, we discussed the slightly delayed call-and-response between the gongs, sarons, and bonangs. Personally, I did not hear the call-and-response element of the musical interaction. To me, it sounded like two very distinct movements carrying on. The gongs, sarons, and bonangs were continuing to contract their cyclical melodies, with the kendang entering and setting a more constant rhythm. Yet, the suling is carrying on, undisturbed, underneath the melody, eerily slow, sounding like a moan. It is also playing at an interval relatively higher than the other instruments although down a few octaves, highlighting its difference. Together, these two separate movements create a richly variant and complex musical work. From here, the higher-toned instruments speed up and increase in volume as the kendang becomes steadier, begging the question: does the quiet suling get lost in the noise or is it disappearing altogether? 

Kembang Pacar

Kembang Pecar is a loud-style Gamelan piece from Central Java. The piece begins with a wide melodic line that continues to contract with time. The slow beginning sounds like wind chimes sporadically ringing eerily but beautifully. Really, these chimes are a variety of different instruments from gongs to bonang, rows of bronze kettles. Each instrument in the ensemble has a certain role to play. The lower-pitched instruments play at a slower pace than the higher-pitched instruments that carry the melody lines. As the song builds momentum, the frequency of pitch articulation increases. The drum is not especially prominent in Kembang Pacar, but it clearly is the rhythmic force behind the piece. Because this piece is performed by a loud-style ensemble, it features the saron as opposed to the soft slenten as the main player of melody lines. One can clearly hear the common elements of Gamelan music in this excerpt, from the polyphonic layering of melody lines to the cyclical musical structure. Towards the end, the piece begins to slow down, mimicking its starting pace. This highlights the re-expansion of the melody after a period of contraction. Overall, a cycle continues throughout the piece, adding layers and then subtracting them as the melody expands and the song ends.