Hell is other people’s music 

Paraphrasing Kristeva – the barbarian is the subject whose music is so unknown to us that it doesn’t even appear to be music. It sounds like “noise”. 

The question of cross- or transcultural listening to music is hopelessly confused. Moreover, we can extend this problem to cross-subcultural listening and also historical listening. When the journalist Momus noted: 

‘Hell,’ said Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘is other people’. I’d qualify that slightly. People are fine; it’s their music that’s hell”, he was talking about a subcultural issue: “When I moved to New York my first year was sheer bliss; I spent my second in the inferno. Just one thing changed: A couple of dedicated techno rave kids moved in next door. They played the same trance compilation from the moment they came into the apartment until the moment they hit the sack, and even sometimes all through the night. 

It has been quite common for European travellers to refer to the music they encountered on their way as “barbarous”. In dictionary.com the third entry for barbarous relates specifically to music: “full of harsh sounds; noisy; discordant: an evening of wild and barbarous music.”  Wild and barbarous, they often seem to be synonymous. Barbarian or barbarous are antonyms of civilized, refined, cultured. In Sanskrit the verb barbarna refers specifically to the incomprehensible speech of the non-Arya peoples. Barbar means uncivilized or stupid but has a second meaning of curly-haired. The non-Arya people belonging to Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic ethnicities probably were dark-skinned and curly-haired. To this day these ethnic differences can be recognized in India and there is an apparent correlation between dark-skinned/low-caste/non-sanskritic and light-skinned/high-caste/sanskritic. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that there has been, for millennia, a process of contact between the different peoples that entered India over the past 100,000 years or so. But the Arya, of whom we possess the largest body of texts, certainly didn’t have a high opinion of their neighbours, Karna says in the Mahabharata referring to the Yahikas:

There is a town of the name of Sakala … and a clan of the Vahikas known by the name of Jarttikas. The practices of these people are very sensurable. They drink the liquor called gauda, and eat fried barley with it. They also eat beef with garlic… Of righteous practices they have none. Their women, intoxicated with drinks and divested of robes, laugh and dance outside the walls of houses and cities, without garlands and unguents, singing all the while drunken and obscene songs of diverse kinds that are as musical as the bray of the ass or the bleat of the camel” (Lokayata, 162).

Up to the early centuries of the CE the gana-s played a very prominent role in India and obviously formed a great threat to Arya society. Kautilya, the Indian Machiavelli, tried to break up their power through a number of fuses. Pages and pages of his Arthashastra are filled with descriptions of these groups and how to destroy them. He makes it particularly clear that these groups cannot be overcome by military power because of their unity. There are also very clear indications that their social organization was matrilineal or matriarchal (Ibid.: 166-221). The references to non-Arya music are not always so scathing. In both Vedic and Buddhist literature we get the distinct impression that the non-Arya peoples were more advanced in music and dance and certainly held music in a very high regard. The importance of music in all references related to Shiva, the non-Arya God, also supports this idea. 

Jaap Kunst, in his inaugural speech, starts out with the opposition of Greeks and Barbarians and similarly points out that the peoples referred to, in particular the Persians, probably possessed a more advance culture than the Greeks themselves. The ethnocentricity embodied in the concept of barbarian is well-formulated in the statement of Gus Portokalos in My big fat greek wedding: “There are two kinds of people—Greeks, and everyone else who wish they were Greek.” Plato pointed out that the distinction Greek-Barbarian was rather meaningless as it says nothing about the Barbarians (Statesman 262de, quoted in Wikipedia/Barbarian). And Levy-Strauss says: “Barbarian is he who believes in barbary.” Race and State (in Schwarcz, Raça e Diversidade 11). It is interesting to notice that the value system behind the “barbarous” can also be turned around, as happens with words like wicked and terrible. This is especially the case in Latin America, where, in both Spanish and Portuguese “bárbaro” easily means “wonderful, impressive”. This can possibly be traced to the modernist aesthetics. 

Oswald de Andrade says in his Manifesto Pau-Brasil: 

O Carnaval do Rio é o acontecimento religioso da raça. Pau-Brasil. Wagner submerge ante os cordões de Botafogo. Bárbaro e nosso. A formação étnica rica. Riqueza vegetal. 0 minério. A cozinha. O vatapá, o ouro e a dança. [… ] Bárbaros, crédulos, pitorescos e meigos. Leitores de jornais. Pau-Brasil. A floresta e a escola. O Museu Nacional. A cozinha, o minério e a dança. A vegetação. Pau-Brasil. (Correio da Manha 18/3/24)

“Barbaro e nosso” (barbarous and ours) has become a key sentence in the modernist world-view that stands for the reversal of the barbarian.

Kunst’s inaugural speech about the “Appreciation of Eastern music in Europe” shows that european ears did not adapt very well to South East Asian sounds. The common phrases are: “barbarous music, mere noise, discordant sounds that hurt the ears, and so on. The account by Van der Meer and Bor of European travellers commenting about Indian music is highly similar, and in Harrison’s book, Time, Place and Music we also find many such expressions. 

In short, the general impression is that “other” musics compare rather unfavorably to “our” music in the accounts mentioned hitherto. Yet, even then it must be said that there are quite a few examples. In fact, careful reading of some of the passage reveals that the authors do not understand the other music, which is not necessarily the same as to say that “it’s hell.” 

When a troupe of devadasis came to Europe in 1838 “almost all reporters agreed that their nose-rings were ugly, and that the music was primitive and ‘monotonous, but […] not displeasing” (The Morning Post, 2 October 1838. Quoted in Bor).

Which leads us to the issue of music as the universal language, the language of the heart. 

Prabha Atre, the famous Indian singer who travelled all over the world and listened to many musics says: 

Whether classical or popular, vocal or instrumental, North or South Indian, Indian or non-Indian, the basic constituents of music-tone and time are the same all over the world. The difference in various musical cultures lies in the approach to these constituents in terms of selection of the material, its treatment, arrangement, expression and presentation of the resultant structures. That is why every culture has its own music. On one side, music is the universal language of mankind but on the other, it is very culture specific. (Enlightening the Listener). 

On the question of musical meaning she pronounces a view that strongly resembles the dominant stream in western musicology:

Of all arts, music eludes comprehension. The patterns of sound and rhythm that are created do not actually represent anything in the world around us. They are abstract in nature. The inability to recognize what is taking place and being communicated through these patterns may result at times in boredom, frustration and dislike when one is exposed to ‘pure’ music. In general, most listeners react to music subjectively. They interpret music in terms of the emotional intensity that they experience. Visual images, associations and words especially in vocal music play an important role in giving emotional meaning to music. However, it must be remembered that this meaning is totally different from the ‘musical meaning’ of music. To understand musical meaning, one needs to take an objective approach, where the listener thinks only about the concepts, sound material, technique, patterns of tone and time, variety, expression, flow, development of the form and so on. In ideal appreciation, both objective and subjective responses are necessary. (Enlightening the Listener). 

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction here. If music has no meaning other than the musical meaning, how can we ever misunderstand music? Why does some music sound like noise or chaos? And also, how can it be that musics hybridize? 

It is now widely accepted that music is not a universal language at all. But does that mean that there are no universals in music? The ethnomusicological point of view has been for quite some time that universals have no relevance as meaning is culture specific. There is however a tendency to re-evaluate this question. John Blacking wrote in a paper published in 1990, Transcultural communication and the biology of music: 

there remain two basic explanations of transcultural musical communication and the diffusion of musical characteristics: 1) different individuals are happy to make sense of the same sounds according to their own, developed musical intuition, and 2) there are biologically based capabilities that enable people to make culture-free, aesthetic judgments. It is only in the second type of situation that there is a possibility that two different individuals might experience the same musical sounds in exactly the same way. (1990, p. 185) 

Blacking admitted therefore the possibility of aesthetic judgments which are independent of cultural conditioning and which, rooted in biology, could create an authentic communication link between individuals belonging to different cultures, even ones which are very distant from each other. 

The process of cross-cultural misinterpretation of music is well illustrated in the Hindostannie Airs of the late 18th century. Especially the description of Margaret Fowke asking the Indian musicians to tune their instruments to her harpsichord is quite funny…

I was recently speaking to the leader of the Atlas ensembte, Joel Bons who commented on his first impression when he heard a Chinese group he was deeply impressed by the sound of the different instruments but thought “the music was horrible”. Bons travels around the world with the idea of finding musical instruments and meeting the musicians who play them that could be integrated into his ensemble. He then studies the possibilities and limitations of the instruments, which he documents on video. This information is divulged to composers that are asked to create pieces for his ensemble. The attitude of Bons is just one among many different ways of appropriating “other music” by people in either classical or popular music. It remains remarkable that very often there is a disparaging attitude. Boulez does this in a semi-covert manner when he states that Indian music has reached perfection but that he isn’t interested in it because perfection doesn’t allow for innovation. 

Cross-cultural listening in the case of world music on western podia goes through a number of stages, each of which also represent a different aspect. The first stage is that of scouting, in which a “connoisseur” hunts, intentionally or not, for “good music” that can “work” on the western (economically powerful) stage. Such music has to combine the qualities of being “good” by itself and having the capacity of adapting itself to the western listener. A second intermediate level is that of the organisors and concert halls, who sell the product by a strategy of propaganda. Generally the vocabulary of this propaganda is repetitious and trite. The third stage is the concert hall consumption of the “mined” music by the enthusiasts of world music. Presently they fall mainly into two categories: the lovers of what Lomax calls the “old high cultures” of Asia and the Afro-­Latin aficionados. Finally, there are the critics, persons who have been around in the world music scene for a long time, often trained in ethnomusicology, who play a considerable role in shaping the listening strategies and aesthetic framework for the broader audience. Of course there are other players in this game: subsidy providers, CD producers, publishing houses, educational institutions.

A survey I did among first year students indicates there is a correlation between familiarity /nearness /understanding /appreciating and unfamiliarity /distance /lack of understanding /disliking.

What about the reverse? How do “other” peoples look at their others, including “our music”. Many of the travellers mentioned before have also given us some ideas about the opinion that other people had about “our music”, which unsurprisingly was also not very high. 

But it is rare to have such information, also because the music that “we” brought with us was very limited; after all, there were no ghetto blasters those days. 

The ethnographic information on cross-cultural listening is confused. The major evidence that is staring us in the face however is the importation of “other” music into the western world and the exportation of western music to the non western world. Again there are two sides to this: import/export of elements and import/export of finished, total products. This is about markets and about cultural hegemony. Western classical music has now been firmly rooted in China and Japan. In a number of other countries it is trying to get a foothold, in some countries—like India—with very little success. Pop music similarly tries to get into those markets. There is a very interesting fight going on, because the local markets have, or are developing, their own pop-musics. These borrow (steal, appropriate) elements from western pop-music and hybridize them into a localized variant. Bollywood is of course the prime example of this phenomenon. Clearly, India and China are huge markets On the other hand we see in the west both the appropriation of elements of “other” musics in western music (classical -many examples, pop -Beatles, Madonna, Shakira) and the staging of the “original” product. Original in quotes, because there usually is a considerable adaptation to the western stage. 

In all these cases however there seems to be little understanding of the “other” music. It remains barbarian music; unintelligible sounds. They may no longer be considered “noise” but the appreciation has gone through a set of filters and transcoders. Nicholas Cook pointed out the other day that he couldn’t care less. “If I enjoy it I am not concerned with the question whether I have really understood it”. And implicitly the idea is that if you enjoy it, it is because there is a common ground for understanding. Perhaps this is the basis of the multimusicality of the Kamayurá. Nattiez pointed out that at least music has more universals than language. Musicologists are retarded optimists. 

In 2000, J. Bottum published an essay called “The Soundtracking of America” in Atlantic Monthly. “We all are terrorized by music nowadays,” he wrote, “…the merciless stream of 1960s golden oldies drenching suburban malls, the disco-revival radio thumping out Donna Summer in the back of a taxi all the way to the airport, the tinny Muzak bleating from storefronts as you walk along th~sidewalk, the tastefully muted Andrew Lloyd Webber seeping from recessed speakers above the urinals in the men’s room.” 

So what about “la musique barbare” of Gauguin that features above this post? In the journal Noa Noa he wrote during his visit to Tahiti 1893-94 he generally seems to use the idea of barbarous in a positive post-Rousseau style. I was struck by one particular passage:

From their coppery breasts trembling melodies arise, and are faintly thrown back from the wrinkled trunks of the cocoanut-trees. They are the Tahitian songs, the iménés.
A woman begins. Her voice rises like the flight of a bird, and from the first note reaches even to the highest of the scale; then by strong modulations it lowers again and remounts and finally soars, the while the voices of the other women about her, so to speak, take flight in their turn, and faithfully follow and accompany her. Finally all the men in a single guttural and barbarous cry close the song in a tonic chord. Gauguin, Paul. Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal (Dover Fine Art, History of Art) (pp. 16-17). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

Bibliography (to be completed)

Momus, Hell is other people’s music, http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/commentary/imomus/2006/04/70625

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006. 14 Oct. 2006. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/barbarous>

Philip V. Bohlman, “Ontologies of Music”, In: Cook, N. And M. Everist, Rethinking Music OUP 1999.