Musica Exotica in DeKalb, Illinois

This past weekend, I had the enormous good fortune to be speaking at Northern Illinois University‘s “Teaching World Music Symposium.” Organized by the inimitable Dr. Jui-Ching Wang, this delightful meeting of the minds featured composers, music educators, musicologists, and performers in what ended up being as much a Festival as it was a Symposium. The papers and presentations were uniformly excellent, but the real highlight was the rich diversity of outstanding performances throughout the weekend. Both aspects bore the strong legacy of one Dr. Kuo-Huang Han, the man who founded NIU’s world music program in 1975 and built it over the course of his career there.

Most of what a person can say about NIU’s program can probably be found in one place or another on the NIU website, but the thing that might be a bit more difficult to observe from that angle is the clear integration of music education and world music. In an age of postmodern multicultural music education, this seems completely natural. The reality is that in many schools of music, entrenched attitudes about anything outside the strong “Western Art Music” performance-based “canon” of pedagogies and repertories tend to marginalize any meaningful commitment to the robust exploration and serious consideration of diverse musics from around the globe. In other words, whatever the viewbook might imply, the band/chorus/orchestra model of the American secondary school still rules the day. This is particularly true in places that train teachers to perpetuate the band/chorus/orchestra model.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this model. In fact, I am the product of an excellent band/chorus/jazz band experience in Iowa, a state that has a long tradition of commitment to it. Universities, however, are meant to be places open to examining virtually anything in the spirit of free and unrestricted inquiry.

The entire weekend, therefore, reminded me of an interview I read once with ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias. It is worth quoting here at length. Tim Rice was asking the questions.

TR: What kind of influence do you think ethnomusicology has had on music studies in general?

RG: I could see the number of ethnomusicologists growing. And I could see a point, very soon, in which there would be an ethnomusicologist in every major institution of higher education across the country. I somehow thought we’d all be integrated into what’s going on in the university as a whole, and that didn’t happen. Even though there were ethnomusicologists all over, they tended to continue to be isolated from everybody around them. The university as a whole understands that it’s illogical to say, if we’re going to study geology, the best rocks in the world are in California and there’s no need to think about what the rocks are like anywhere else in the world. That’s absolutely absurd. But that’s what music departments do. Only one kind of music is worth studying. And that sort of heresy continues in spite of the fact that it’s antithetical to the way the university is structured. I never expected that that would continue for so long. I somehow thought in the sixties that we were going to bring the light of reason. And that didn’t happen, because we continued to be separate. But in part because the performance conservatory model does not belong in a university. They’re talking religion. They are absolute, and so it doesn’t fit in the university, and it’s been detrimental to the development of the field of ethnomusicology, to be under a system in which these are the people who are making decisions. I never expected that we’d get into that situation. Nor did I expect we would get into a situation in which so many ethnomusicologists would be complacent about that very thing. If you can’t find a place for the individual ethnomusicologist to thrive, the discipline is going to die.

Garfias was speaking from a place of profound disillusionment with the complacency of our approach as ethnomusicologists to the ethnocentric perspectives of some–and I emphasize some–of our colleagues in departments, schools, and colleges of music around the country and the world. NIU, on the other hand, has managed to take a very strong tradition of performance in Western common practice repertories and welcome jazz and world music artists into that model. People like Ron Carter and Kuo-Huang Han–among others–made that happen at NIU. They have not stopped there, however, as the level of music education and world music scholarship happening at NIU is also very strong. They are proving, one world music ensemble at a time, one graduate student playing in those ensembles at a time, that the performance-based model need not be solely focused on any one repertory; that it is well and good for people to specialize, so long as they also challenge themselves to be versatile and learn to function outside their professional comfort zones; and that music education, music performance, and world music–among other areas of musical study–can and should be mutually reinforcing.

So long as there are people like Dr. Han and Dr. Wang doing their work, and as long as places like NIU are supporting it, Bob Garfias’ pessimistic vision does not have to come to pass. In the meantime, as Dr. Ronnie Wooten and I agreed after an outstanding lunchtime performance at the symposium, music this beautiful will be making the world a better place. NIU has been giving these “Musica Exotica” concerts for 40 years. Here’s to 40 more and beyond!

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