Studying World Music and Composing New Music

I’ve been having a wonderful couple of months teaching a summer course in “nonWestern music” (to quote one of my professors: “Who teaches the course on nonEastern music?” but that’s a discussion best saved for another time), while simultaneously trying to make some progress on my opera.

More about the opera sometime soon, but, for now, my struggle, as it always seems to be, is balancing my time between my work as a composer, an electronic musician, and an ethnomusicologist.

These three roles, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive, so perhaps it’s more apt to say that I struggle to balance my time between thinking about music and writing music (and then subdivide that into writing music directly as sound, and writing music as notes on paper).

And then some time is spent watching cat videos on the internet.

The more I study and teach world music, though, the more I believe that an understanding of approaches to ethnomusicology is an invaluable tool for composers (and consumers) of new music. The skills that the students develop in my world music class are completely analogous to the skills of the students in my digital audio class.

Of course, on technical level, the information is very different–I think it might be tricky to spot the similarities between learning how Xenakis’s UPIC works and how to count the tala in Hindustani music–but core idea is the same: Here is music that is different from what you know, but, with a little work, we can find a way to understand it.

To take that idea to the next level, we build the skills to listen more objectively to an unfamiliar piece of music and use our critical thinking to understand what is happening, not just how this music compares to Beethoven or Mozart (or Nicki Minaj). We learn to listen for different ideas of pitch, time, structural, and timbral organization. We learn to discard the assumption that the values of Western music (or, for some students, pop music) are universal (“I can’t get into this piece or this piece. I like pieces that have a rhythm”… ), we learn to try to engage with a musical tradition on its own terms, and we better understand what “music” is (and can be) by using our objective and critical thinking to find the core of a given piece or tradition.

In a recent conversation, I referred to this as equivalent of how Neo “sees the matrix” at the end of the first of those films.

Perhaps, I was being a little overdramatic.

But I hope it’s also clear how these skills are useful to people far beyond the just context of music.

One comment

  1. Simon says:

    Here’s Sir Ken Robinson, not speaking directly about world music education, but his justification of (standard) music education supports the argument for a wider breath of musical perspectives:

    Fast forward to 1:40

    If “it’s in the arts that we focus on the qualities of our human experience,” then what better way to understand the universal human experience than to experience arts from a wider range of people!

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A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one.

-Dmitri Shostakovich