Friday, February 3, 2017

Music and Society Final Essay

The song I have selected for analysis in this essay is “Nataraj” by Jai Uttal.  If you are interested, here is a link to the YouTube video.

This song is part of a sacred tradition called Bhakti (Devotional) Yoga.  In Bhakti Yoga practitioners meditate and recite the names of gods.  Kirtan is a musical form that sings or chants the names of gods.  Bhakti Yoga and Kirtan generally come out of the Hindu tradition, but I believe there is Kirtan in the Sikh tradition as well.

Jai Uttal provides a chord progression to the melody which is designed for the Western ear.  The instruments he uses are also primarily Western: Guitar and percussion trap set.  If this same chant were played for an Indian audience I suspect there would be a Sitar, Tabla and Harmonium.  Because of its simplicity it may be an example of Theodor Adorno’s “Regression of Listening.”

“Nataraj” is the aspect of the god Shiva when dancing.  This song praises the powerful image of the dancing Shiva.  It is said that as Shiva dances he destroys everything in his path and re-creates the world in his wake.  Impermanence is an important concept in Eastern thought.  One of the important features of this song is that it engenders an acceptance and appreciation of change both in broad terms and in the very personal.

The song supports the spiritual practice of the Kirtan participants.  One of the goals of the music is to produce a devotional religious trance in the part of the practitioner.  Kirtan is typically presented in a call-and-response format, which fosters group identity.

Art, in general, and music, in particular, can be accessed from many different perspectives.  I listen to this type of music often, but I come at this from a secular (non-religious) point of view.  While I am highly skeptical about the idea of gods when it comes to philosophy or theology, I am happy to have gods inhabiting the music around me.

Specifically, I am a painter and it seems to help when I listen to this music while painting.  By sinking into the trance-like rhythm and simple melody I feel grounded in a non-rational creative potential.  In some ways it is though the music represses some part of my brain activity that gets in the way of painting.

So, I treat this music instrumentally.  It serves a psychological use.  The music tends to bring my emotions close to the surface and produce a sense of “Oneness” with everything.  I believe this sense of “oneness” leads to ethical attitudes of gratitude and compassion which I view as positive. 

However, it is far from clear that others listening to this music will have the same experience.  I believe that art, including music, can have multiple outcomes or responses to the same work.  Some may be ethical some may not.

Others may view this piece of music in negative terms.  First, those who have a worldview that does not include the Hindu pantheon of gods, may believe this music corrupts the religious beliefs of the listener.  Secondly, and more serious in my opinion, is the claim that this Westernized version of a sacred tradition is cultural appropriation and commodification of their spirituality.  My response to this musically is ethically positive and I hope others can get past mythology and enjoy it as I do.

Mike Mallory

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review of NSK by Volk

I listened to the track "NSK", by Volk.  The song starts out with horns heralding "good news."  The the melody settles into a predictable melody with a strong 4/4 beat, reminding me of John Phillips Sousa which is perfect for marching.

Because the melody is predictable it is a kind of pop anthem.  According to Adorno this kind of music would serve the status quo or existing order and because it serves an underdeveloped musical taste the song would not have a subversive effect.  Of course no one would want a subversive national anthem.  The whole point is to emotionally focus the listener on his/her proper place as a constitute member of the state. This song has a place in a video game.

I think that the marching cadence is important.  Whether one is actually marching, you can participate imaginatively with the image that you are marching along side the other citizens of NSK and are part of a group.  This is an example of music operating at the precognitive or corporeal level.  Or as Steve Goodman says, "....elementary pulses or throbs of experience constitutive of an aesthetic ontology."

Overlaying the simple marching beat is an "affective tonality" which is understood as representing the hope of belonging to a collective.  Similarly, Jaques Attai describes the orderly and pleasing music to be the "ministering angel" transforming anxiety into joy and dissonance into harmony.

The subversion, if any, here is that by offering a collection of National Anthems the listener can experience the music's call to collectivism in many different songs.  This undercuts the special appeal of your own national anthem.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Random Musical Intersections

Hello, my name is Mike Mallory.  My family had a phonograph player and my mother would play records, but I wasn’t much interested.  My first recollected encounter with music was in 3rd grade when my mother signed me up for the school orchestra playing the violin.  I wanted to play the trombone, but we already had a family violin and my parents said they couldn’t afford a new instrument.  I grew up in a middle-class culture, but still.  And I guess that my middle class environment included the cultural capital that included a school district that included music in the curriculum and the family expectation that music was part of education.

Through the violin I became acquainted and begin to enjoy American folk songs and later light classical music.  But my musical interests changed to rock n’ roll as a teenager growing up in the 60’s.  I put down my violin and picked up a guitar.  I never put the time into the guitar to make much music.  But my love of rock has stayed with me.

My family of origin was loosely Christian and started attending a Unitarian Church (on the liberal fringe of Protestantism).  Between the ages of 20 – 30, I didn’t attend church or participate in music making, although I have always enjoyed listening to music.

Around twenty I started to attend church again.  Once I was reengaged in a religious community I started singing in the choir.  I have been signing in the choir for the past 30 years.  Over my time with the congregation I have sung with the choir, sung in duets and trios, and sung solos.  Even after all that time my vocals are still not very well trained, but it can be powerful, so I try to emphasize passion over technique.

I also became engaged in a men’s group that had interests in both drumming and chanting.  I have done a lot of drum circle drumming and have a pair of hoop drums (one I made myself for deer hide) and a demi-conga.  Like my vocals, my percussion is pretty basic, but I do have respect and appreciation of African and Caribbean poly-rhythms.

My vocals at church presented a perpetual problem.  I wanted to sign a song and would need a guitarist to accompany me.  But it was always a hassle to arrange for the accompanist.  I have sung several Dyan tunes, a Stones song, Bob Marley and other folk and rock pieces.  I have also sung several duets with my wife, including “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz.  Because of the problems with getting someone to play guitar I bought a Ukulele and am taking lessons.  I have been playing my Uke for a year and practice daily.  So far I have accompanied myself in public three times:  Monster Mash, This Land is Your Land and When Soul Meets Body. My vocals and the violin were both single note instruments with the Uke I am working to learn chording theory.