21 November 2011

Reflections on Ethnic Music

This is a brief meditation on ethnicity as a source of all powerful musical styles, as a kind of curse in the contemporary world of nation states, and as an ever more complex puzzle for every student of popular music to solve. Browsing through the Wilfrid Mellers classic, one can browse a long time before finding much on ethnicity  or class as foundations for musicking. Music in a New Found Land simply extends the high culture worldview used in writing about Bach or Beethoven or Orpheus to generously include the best of popular music in a civilization that is ever broader but always universal. Mellers writes from on high, a heavenly perspective, in which sympathetic judgments of everything musical under the sun are dispensed with gusto and St. Peter is encouraged to let all kinds of quality pass the gates, or perhaps we should describe it as an Olympian-situated knowledge that savors the foibles and idiosyncrasies of all the music makers below because the gods and mortals share so many  passions. I know I have enjoyed this recent browsing greatly because I share in almost all the judgments: the appreciation of Thelonius Monk’s fingerings, the disgust with Stan Kenton’s mechanization, the appraisal of Menotti’s emptiness, the disappointments of so many ‘third stream’ syntheses. Mellers gets it right in phrase after phrase, page after page, but almost always by listening intelligently from the top down.