Tag Archives: ethnomusicology

Dr. Hiatus

Frequent readers of this blog (all two of you) would have noticed the long hiatus I took while writing up my dissertation. Well, that’s done. Last weekend, my folks and my brother were in town, I had a bunch of people over for a beer, and we all celebrated the completion of my Ph.D. Now all I need is a job. In the mean time, I have these pretty pictures to look at. Bully for me!

My brother took some great pictures at the graduation ceremony. Here’s one from just after that in front of the building where my wife works.

We also took a few that morning before the festivities. It was good to see my folks again–it had been several years!

The boys…

Jenn planned a fantastic party to which this cake was a popular addition.

Many friends joined us. Among them, here’s Dale Olsen. The Distinguished Professor Emeritus was one of the reasons I came to FSU, and I spent my first three years here working very closely with him. We shared many wonderful moments onstage and in conversation, and I’m glad to call Dale a friend.

We had so many friends there that day. Deep thanks to all for the warm congratulations. These are merely highlights from an unforgettable weekend.

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Beatles Redux: Community of Affinity or Crass Capitalism?

A little over a year ago, I decided that it was time to incorporate gaming into my Modern Popular Music course at Florida State University.  I had been inspired by two colleagues in ethnomusicology.  Trevor Harvey, a friend and classmate at FSU, researches online music communities.  He had successfully incorporated this topic into his own teaching on popular and American roots music, and I knew his input could make this a much more illuminating experience for my students and me.  Trevor and I had both seen Kiri Miller‘s paper presentation at SEM the previous year.  Along with another colleague (a Grand Theft Auto enthusiast), we started an important discussion with our students about what I call performative gaming.

Allow me a brief flashback.  The first gaming contexts in which I noticed elements of player performance were games like Dance Dance Revolution and Parappa the Rapper (old school…late 90s).  About the time Harvey started asking probing questions about the nature of these interactive performances (and indeed whether or not they are performances at all), Rockstar Games had released several versions of Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero was fast becoming the most popular video game on several gaming consoles.  By the time Harmonix Music Systems released Rock Band, it was clear that if the RIAA and other music moguls of yesteryear could not control a measured commodification of and profit from music, gamers could and would.

Even as I was considering this new reality and what it meant for my classroom, I heard this NPR piece.  Sometimes teaching materials just fall right in my lap.  I knew I wanted my class to read Miller’s piece on GTA (from Ethnomusicology 51/3).  The NPR piece offered an ideal prelude to that article that touched on some of the broader issues I had hoped to cover.

Incorporating these articles into our class discussion on popular music and mass music markets, I involved my students in one of the most successful teaching experiments I have ever conducted.  They first either read or listened to the NPR piece.  Then I brought in the GTA enthusiast to familiarize students with the games in a kind of participatory gaming laboratory.  Students participated as gamers and pointed out their own favorite musical features.  Not wanting to shape that experience with anything but the game and their ideas about it, I waited until after that day to have them read Miller’s “Jacking the Dial.”  They came back to class with so much discussion material that I had to put off the next part of the gaming lab.  Harvey came in for that next phase in order to facilitate participation in Guitar Hero and Rock Band for the class.  By this time, we were not so much introducing students to games (most had already played them) as we were trying to get them to think critically about their participation.

While I’m happy to report that this experiment worked (insomuch as it provided me with a framework for starting this conversation with students in the future), we also got hung up by the mesmerizing question of whether or not this kind of participatory, performative gaming constitutes an “actual” or “authentic” musical performance.  Students on both sides of the issue were passionate and articulate about their arguments, but I think there are more interesting questions at play here.

Last week, Daniel Radosh published an article in the New York Times that begins to reveal some of those questions in a more public way (thanks to wayneandwax and Sandra Graham for pointing me to this article).  Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and CEO of Harmonix Music Systems, comments in the article: “I actually on some levels see what we are doing now as a massive historical throwback to the time in which the way people experienced music that they loved was as active participants in the music.”  Rigopulos knows what he’s doing.  Yes, it’s a throwback to a time when people a) went to concerts where mania over the artist became a standard element of the experience or b) covered their favorite artists’ tunes in garage bands and local dance halls around the country.  Yes, both of these things are still happening, but Rigopulos makes the essence of both of those experiences much more accessible than all that. By requiring technical facilities that are much more accessible to a general population than say, creative songwriting or a distinctive vocal sound, participatory performative gaming harnesses the social essence of musical experience, commodifying it for public consumption.

Miller has gone a long way toward pointing out that the value of this commodity has nothing to do with whether it requires musical skill and everything to do with the social essence that gives performative gaming its own authenticity.  This is “a new way of musicking,” argues Miller.  Whether music purists and “real” instrumentalists like it or not, Miller draws on her survey evidence to point out that this new modality has a major impact on the ways in which people experience recorded music even when they are NOT gaming.  It seems that beyond creating communities of affinity revolving around specific repertories, the new generation of media moguls is changing how people engage with musical commodities of all kinds.

In Marxian terms, people like Alex Rigopulos have somehow found a way to re-fetishize musical commodities.  People already fetishize musical commodities in that they relate to each other in a variety of ways (production, distribution, consumption, and presently P2P consumptive production) through those commodities.  With performative gaming, companies like Harmonix have made a new kind of commodity out of the experience, a capitalistic fetish peculiar to these games through which people relate not only through the commodity, but because of it.  Moreover, the commodity goes further to shape the ways in which people fetishize other commodities; i.e. the tail wags the dog.  This could explain McCartney’s feeling that fans have some “new” sense of agency within The Beatles’ music that they didn’t have before.  Sooo…if a plastic guitar-shaped video game controller can somehow endow users with a brand of fan agency that a “real” guitar can’t, clearly  value lies somewhere beyond the instruments themselves.  But has Rigopulos gone too far with his latest project?

Consumers have, until now, happily and even passionately participated in elements of performative gaming that allow them to personalize the experience.  Drum fills, improvised guitar solos, and the ability to export songs onto other media for other uses have been all but removed from Harmonix’s forthcoming release, The Beatles: Rock Band.  “The decision to make the Beatles game a “walled garden” from which songs cannot be exported and added to a party mix alongside other Rock Band tunes,” writes Radosh, “violates the central shuffle-and-personalize ethos of modern music consumption.”  Will these restrictions take away the personal experience that adds so much fun to performative gaming, or will we instead see that  social essence to which I refer above as the unaltered and ultimately lucrative commodity here?  How important will the ability to customize be to communities of affinity interested in this release?  Will the absence of this ability reveal a capitalist tendency to commodify social experience that, up until now, had been masked by the illusion of individuality in the experience?  Will it allow Beatles enthusiasts to claim an entirely new form of authenticity borne out of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono’s participation in the game’s creation?  However consumers answer those questions, Rigopulos and Harmonix continue to pose them in interesting ways.

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Celebrate!

Today I became Florida State University’s newest candidate for the Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology!  This has been a long time coming, and the culminating meeting with my committee was nothing short of inspiring.  These fine folks have clearly put a lot of thought and time into this project already, and their continued devotion came through in two hours of the most empowering, challenging, and fascinating conversation I think I’ve ever had.  I’m off to celebrate now, but stay tuned for a new featured artist very soon . . .

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Here’s to good musicology

I’ve got three great reasons to celebrate musicology today:

#1: My Colleagues

This weekend my university’s College of Music hosted a joint regional conference between the Society for Ethnomusicology and the American Musicological Society.  Many members of our local professional organization, the FSU Society for Musicology, cooperated to tackle all of the logistics of hosting about 150 musicologists from the American Southeast.  Although I’m the president of this little organization, I feel as though my job leading up to this was incredibly easy.  Yes I had to do some work, send some e-mails, put some press together, and carry a few heavy things.  Yes it involved a 15-hour Friday in the middle of a week in which I was moving into my new house, but these folks are fantastic.  I have the greatest colleagues in the world.  We work too much, we get paid too little, and we have unreasonably high standards, but we always take care of our own.

#2: Professors

We kicked the conference off this weekend with a guest lecture by Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University, Dr. Aaron Fox.  His lecture on “Country Music’s Late Modern Period” also gave us an interesting perspective on Ethnomusicology’s Late Modern Period.  Fox’s delivery was confidently casual, and the next morning I enjoyed an equally casual breakfast with him as we talked over some more personal career things.  During the morning African music workshop that I ran with my esteemed colleague and dear friend Kafumbe, I re-connected with some other professors whom I really respect.  The workshop only enhanced my respect for these folks, as it gave me an opportunity to observe that these folks can back up their good scholarship with solid musicianship.  But it was that evening that really reminded me how truly fortunate I am to be surrounded by great mentors.  The keynote lecturer centered his talk around making our research really mean something in the lives of our field colleagues.  It was preceded by the warmest introduction from one of his colleagues, an example that left no doubt about why I enjoy such great professional relationships.  Olsen’s remarks left the crowd feeling inspired, and we thanked him for that and his thirty-five years of service with a lengthy standing ovation.  I’ve never seen that happen after a lecture . . . ever.  It was clearly well deserved, and we then had the privilege of moving on to a reception celebrating the careers of two of our retiring faculty members.  One was the keynote lecturer, the other our area coordinator.  The whole thing left me feeling like taking care of our own moves far beyond making sure students’ needs are met.  Olsen and KP, you will be dearly missed.

#3: Newfound support

Well, after numerous grant applications, I was not surprised at the beginning of this week to receive a rejection letter on one of the larger fieldwork grants I’ve applied for.  It happens, and it’s why you don’t count on any grant funding as a sure thing.  But when I heard I’d been denied another local grant through the FSU College of Music after being selected as the finalist from the Musicology area, I was a bit more disappointed.  One panelist reviewing that grant had straight out told me that he ranked my proposal at the top, and another strongly hinted at it.  A few days later, I let go of my disappointment and embraced a new source of support.  I had all but forgotten that I applied for a new grant through the FSU Office of Graduate Studies.  This week, I was awarded a generous stipend and a tuition waiver for the next academic year to embark on a one-year field research endeavor.  With this community of scholars and mentors behind me, I move forward confident that I’ll have all the professional support I need to make the most of this fantastic opportunity.

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