Authentically Inauthentic

Let us dispose, at the outset of this blog, of the word authenticity and all the idiocy we’re bound to commit trying to define, uphold, and work within its confines.  Which is what I’ve been taught to do as a musicologist.  Let us, instead, play with dynamics and with the workings of culture across a broadening stream.  Let us tackle cultural music/world music/ non-Western music and let us engage with how it is being:

  1. Manufactured
  2. Sold
  3. Encouraged
  4. Taught
  5. Sustained as a living practice in the choral world

If we start from the standpoint of saying as a community of scholars that we’re not going to pander to the hegemonies, constructed realities, and imperfect renderings of the world of authentic music then we can dig straight into the music itself, but we can also take apart, then, the cultural weave that has manufactured these sounds.  Therein lies the beauty of discarding authenticity.

But we run into problems when we try to keep on discarding authenticity in the face of a) people who believe in it and b) people who translate the experiences of one culture for the enjoyment/entertainment/titillation/profit of another culture.  If we abandon “authenticity” there often seems to be no way of dealing with people in category b) and no way of conversing with those who lump themselves into category a).  Then discussion is either not profitable or it simply cannot take place leaving dialogue at a standstill and the world of World Music to go on grinding its machinery into pressing new pieces for choirs to perform while going unanalyzed for its problematic nature.

When I graduated with a degree in Music Education I was taught (and I quote) “DO program ‘world music’ for your choirs, but only AUTHENTIC ‘world music’…

Well, in the immortal words of Capt. Jack Sparrow, “That’s even less than unhelpful.”  Thanks so very much you mentors who decided that authenticity really existed, and, worse, that it’s out there for me to find in a publishing catalogue somewhere.  Enter the publisher Earth Songs, actually, strike that, enter publishers full-stop.  The fact is that if it makes it to a publisher, then it can’t possibly be anything like the ideals of “authenticity” because a publisher in music has one job and that’s to sell you music.  If it won’t sell then it won’t make it and if it does make it there’s an “it” factor built into the sound, which means that you’ll order it, program it, teach it to your singers, give a concert with it, receive applause for said performance and if there’s another conductor in the audience they might be caught with the same “it” factor.  Be very certain that a publisher is never going to continue publishing music that doesn’t move out of their warehouses any more than a cable network is likely to continue airing a show that doesn’t get good ratings.

This is a money game and has never been anything else since the invention of the printing press, and in this way the printing industry (several hundred years old in and of itself) is likely a more authentic living tradition than any music purchased through said publishing companies which you could hope to program for your choirs.

To the music:

Several years ago I ran across a work arranged by Ethan Sperry.  I remember being absolutely charmed the first time that I heard Desh… Then, again, this was before I learned anything at all about the Indian classical tradition.  Since that first hearing years ago, Sperry has gone on to publish many more of these arrangements including various arrangements of Bollywood/Broadway tunes by famed composer A. R. Rahman.  Sperry is a firm believer in authenticity and, therefore, a purveyor of the idea that his arrangements, programmed by choral societies across North America are an experience for choirs of an authentic Indian tradition.  In an interview he states:

PC: What do you think are the best ways for an aspiring high school director to get into “authentic” folk music of the world and do it well, so that it respects the music and does it justice? How can they conquer the fear of doing it badly? 

ES: One reason I love performing non-Western music is because I don’t find non-Western ideas in the music. I find basic human emotions and experiences that I have, I share, and I understand.   School administrators approach Diversity from the perspective that we need to learn about and highlight human DIFFERENCES. I absolutely hate this approach and think it is exacerbating racial and social problems in our country. When I sing music from another culture I feel how similar I am to people that other people (administrators) keep telling me I’m supposed to be very different from.  So, don’t be afraid of performing World Music, because it’s not as different as you think.  However, there are differences in vocal technique and style from culture to culture (as there are large differences in technique and style in various types of Western music) and we do want to do justice to all the pieces we sing.  The way to learn is by immersion, even just a little bit of immersion in the culture(s) you are interested in.  The best way to get an authentic performance is to travel to the place the music is from, meet some musicians, and hear some concerts. For most of us that’s not possible due to time or money or both. But we have recordings. And we live in America: there are communities from almost any foreign culture you can think of in almost every American city, even the small cities. The number of truly phenomenal Indian musicians I met in Dayton, Ohio was staggering to say nothing of Cincinnati.   And I’ve never been to Haiti, but I perform a lot of Haitian music. I know lots of Haitians who live in the United States, and I know Western musicians who have lived in Haiti for extended periods. I’ve been to concerts in Haitian communities, and I’ve invited Haitian percussionists to accompany my choirs and talk with my singers.

Well, clearly, from the question we can see that the interviewer believes as well in “authenticity”.  In fact, I know that I’m rubbing back against the grain here in my views of this, but apart from being taught to deal with “authenticity” the same way that physicists are taught to disregard (learn about, but not use) the Aether drag hypothesis anymore, the biggest problem I have both as a musicologist and as a practicing musician is that authenticity and its allure is so darn good for marketing, and I tend to be leery of such scams.  But why, then, if authenticity is nothing more than a marketing premise, do I have a problem with the musical translation scheme that Sperry and others like him are doing to the Indian traditions of raga?

Well, for one thing, the people selling the snake oil are also drinking it.  The harder they believe, the more you’ll believe, and you’ll go out and teach your choirs earnestly about this music, and your students (sweet gullible creatures as most of them are) will get the idea that authenticity is real– because you believe in it– and they’ll believe that what they’ve sung is representative of a living, breathing, active culture in the world!  Which it could never be.  Raga is representative of raga, but a choral transcription of it could not be, and one of the first reasons for this is housed in very act of the committing the notes to paper.  India’s classical tradition is one of the longest living aural traditions in the world and by transcribing the set of notes (the raga itself) to paper, and then teaching the students a fixed version of this raga destroys what a raga is in its culture of origin.  Additionally this is no longer an arrangement in the classical sense of arranging a song.  Published songs have an extant version which arrangers then go about and reset but the move from the original to the arrangement (think of a cover album) is completely audible.  What Sperry and others like him (he was not the first nor will he be the last) are doing/have done enters a practice some of us are starting to call “translation” because like taking the ideas housed in one language, you’re translating them into another language.  But, culturally, you can’t do this with musical forms and still be successful.  Sperry’s arrangements of A. R. Rahman’s pieces are not translations, they’re true arrangements of extant works which have a recorded legacy to them.  Raga Desh has no such reality because in the Indian classical tradition as no two performances of Desh ever sound the same nor should they. Sperry’s arrangement, or any setting down of a fixed version of a piece out of aural tradition immediately implies a werktreue to be embedded within the piece, and it’s just preposterous to build this completely European classical ideal into an arrangement of a piece out of an aural tradition!

The second reason none of these supposed “choral arrangements of ragas” could ever be “authentic” (if we want to play the authentic game) is that there is no such thing as choral music in raga.  The very concept of choir doesn’t even exist in the traditions he’s sampling from and selling to a publisher who then sells it to choral conductors.  Shortly said, this is just dressing up the old “The West consumes the Rest” in the guise of authenticity and in the guise of “teaching” multiculturalism.  This is not appreciation, but appropriation.

But let us switch tacks here.  So far I’ve pulled apart the concept of authenticity and then lambasted supporting musicians/composers of said movement with their own language.  What if we were to turn the tables and say, “This music is actually great for students to learn and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t!”?  Well that’s what I’m going to say next.  I just wish they’d take the authenticity argument out of it.  I wish they wouldn’t try to market this as music of any other part of the world than their OWN because that’s exactly what it is.  Unlike translation in language (Anna Karenina is mostly still Анна Каренина after it’s been translated) music doesn’t retain the tradition of its origin when removed from that context, its sounds and techniques rehoused in a fixed conception that had to be filtered through the mind of an American musician.  If Sperry were to write these pieces, call them his while owning that they were inspired by the living tradition of Indian classical music, and acknowledge that they also borrow in musical techniques from several musical traditions alive and well in the world today (Indian classical singers never use throat singing/overtone singing either…) all while encouraging students to engage these sounds which are not housed in their own tradition then what on Earth would be wrong with that?!

I started to write this post after running into a performance of Sperry’s Dwijavanthi.

The performance is striking because of the excellence of the singing from high schoolers.  I know how hard it is to get singers who are not adults to experiment with their sound, and they’re not merely note and rhythm spot-on, but they’re up there really musicking.  These students AND their teacher deserve all the praise that could possibly be heaped on them for mastering this work, and for giving a performance on stage in front of a room full of other conductors (because this is a performance from a regional ACDA convention!) that shows musicking at the level all conductors want for their choirs: they love their sound, they love making music together, and they are sharing that love with everyone who sees it.  What those students did on that stage escapes a good deal of college and adult choirs, and Sperry’s music was undoubtedly, unquestionably part of the magic that pulled that performance out of those students.  So why taint something so beautiful with a phantom like so-called authenticity?  Sperry’s reworking of that raga is imaginative, fun, challenging for all the musicians, and requires commitment not even to simply “pull-off”, but to actually achieve a performance like the one posted above demands every ounce of musicianship those students had.

In short, if we were to strip these great pieces/arrangements/experiments or inspirations of the program of authenticity we’d be left with great music, inspired by a great tradition that pulls the best out of the musicians who perform it.  We could talk about Indian tradition, we could own that these works couldn’t possibly house or represent an entire tradition and therein lies the real lie of “authenticity” as a program by publishers or educators alike.  How small, miniscule and simple would traditions have to be if a few easy exposures could represent the entire tradition in all its depth to another culture?  This is also the lie of “multiculturalism” but that will have to be dealt with for another time.

It suffices to say that Ethan Sperry is writing great music, the students and teachers are doing audibly great work musicking together, and all of this is coming about because of diversity in culture and being touched by traditions outside of our own.  However, when we can drop this facade of authenticity and claim that we’re programming music because we know that it’s challenging for our students and that it can open a door to their curiosity for potentially exploring the traditions inspiring these works (Hello!!! We live in the age of Youtube and Wikipedia where it’s no longer difficult to seek out the living musicians in the living cultures) then we’ll all be better conductors, better teachers and better composers because we’ll have let go of the madness that authenticity and other jargon-esque concepts like it naturally breeds.  We’ll stop consuming the world, and maybe even cease having the arrogance of believing we can “teach” it, and in so doing we’ll open that third space for our students where true encounters happen and the boundaries of their understandings can be renegotiated by these cultures and how their musicians make music for themselves.

 

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on May 28, 2014.

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