November 27, 2016

In Blog Letters To Finkelstein News

I wish I could attend your Plato class, and have been watching up though episode 5. Because I am a musician, music “teacher” and (according to my friends and much of my training) an ethnomusicologist (another field that is rapidly dying), the ending comments in class 5 got me thinking. In brief:

1) I did get, to some degree, the kind of cultural education Plato is talking about, from my anthropologist parents, not school. It seems more important as I get older, and, as a “teacher/instructor”, I see  how much this is lacking in many children’s lives today. I ask students regularly “did you hear any interesting music this week?” and most of the time, they can’t think of anything.

2) Although most of our musical terminology derives from it, Ancient Greek music was a completely different aesthetic universe from Euro classical music — had, for examples, pitches that a piano doesn’t have! – so our attempts to apply them to our own musical experiences are indeed an attempt to “universalize” them, which is fine,

3) In traditional music from other cultures, broadly speaking, some forms and ideals of self control and restraint are the norm,  everywhere, no matter how odd the music may sound to outsiders. West African music, which people are indeed meant to “undulate” to (in some of the most highly refined dance arts on earth), is a great example. Because the music was so different (in every way) to Europeans (and many Americans today) who first encountered it, they imagined it to be somehow “wild” and free from inhibitions, frenzied. Actually, poise (which is one place “coolness” comes from), attentiveness,  careful listening and careful active participation as part of a community (into which one is taught the beauty of the interlocking rhythms and movements and what they mean) are essential to African music. The same is true in Middle Eastern music, Tuvan music, American Indian music, — and to the best modern rock music, jazz, electronic — it’s endless. No offense to anyone, but “frenzy” is not the word to use. I know the difference, having experienced both musical “frenzy” (as a youth) and musical “flow” of a very different kind (later). “Frenzy” to me implies a lack of presence. Presence involves an ability to actively listen, which takes both years to develop and the interest in doing so.

4)  In most of the traditional societies I can think of, an overall ethic of self control in no way precludes deliberate times of out-of-control festivity, chaos, and drunkenness. I think of the Peruvian and Tarahumara festivals where everyone is supposed to be drunk and most/all social rules can be temporarily broken. Another category: in some areas, what is called “possession trance” — like in Haiti, or Tibet. Or, most relevant to Plato, the Dionysian rites of Ancient Greece (e.g. Alexis’s lost play, “Women Drugged on Mandrake”)! In all these cases the loss of self-control is of limited duration, ritually defined (as a holiday, or religious ceremony), and the degree of loss-of-control varies (from partial or minimal, in a lot of Shamanism, to total, in Haitian possession trance which is followed by amnesia and the in-trance person is watched over by caretakers).

Cheers and very best wishes,

Michael K. Henderson