Imagine There’s No Countries . . .

Considering the Possibility and Practice of Global Citizenship

Cosmopolitanism in Music

Posted by dgreening on March 3, 2009

Once again, the BBC comes up with something really interesting.  The 2006 edition of the Reith lecture series in Berlin, presented by Daniel Barenboim, discusses the part music plays in everyday life.  In his third lecture, Barenboim illustrates a musical equivalent to current global issues and cosmopolitanism.  He asks the question of whether we should want a variety of orchestras from different countries, all naturally adept at playing their native music, or orchestras that all have the same sound, all able to play many pieces by different composers from a multitude of countries equally well.  The present world doesn’t have accepted standards like the ancient world did, and in democratic societies, people see only the rights that come with democracy; very rarely do they also acknowledge the responsibilities.  Essentially this culminates in people making judgements without having to take responsibility for those judgements.  In the context of music, Barenboim worries that people do not have a point of view about classical music, and this will result in it slowly dying out, becuase, as he points out, there is no point in music if one does not have an opinion about it.

However, the most interesting idea came up when Barenboim talked about a piece by Wagner which is well known for the fact that it doesn’t resolve a chord progression, leaving a tense silence before continuing on.  This propagated questions concerning how we define progress, and whether people are afraid of that tension, that moment where no progress is being made and silence prevails.  Our definition of progress works well enough for technology and GDP, but less so for the development as human beings as a whole, and also  one’s own personal development.  Music, then, could also be a starting place for how we define progress.

Finally, the question of music as an esperanto came up.  Music is indeed incredibly accessible to almost all people around the world, but, like language, has so many differing forms it seems inconceivable to think of one single type of music for everyone.  This is a problem for many facets of culture, and demonstrates how far away from a cosmopolitan world we are.  Music is probably is a widely understood form of communication, and to think that even this is in no way close to becoming part of a common world culture, illustrates how very far we still have to go.

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6 Responses to “Cosmopolitanism in Music”

  1. mayacu said

    I don’t think that a cosmopolitan world means that there is only one language or one style of music. Instead it means that there is a general awareness of many different languages, styles of music, and cultures. I think it is important to preserve traditional styles of music just as there are people around the world working to preserve traditional native languages that are quickly disappearing. There is no need for a cosmopolitan world to have only one culture. It should include the sharing and appreciation of many different cultures and traditions. Music is one of the simpler ways to share and communicate across cultures. It does not require anything but an appreciation for something new and different and that is exactly what cosmopolitanism should be.

  2. rfrankl said

    Barenboim has a wonderful collection of essays published under the title, I think, “Music and Time.” It is a bit slow, tedious, and clumsily written but he spends abou the first half of the thing focused on how to solve the Palistinian and Israel problem. I urge you to check it out if you are interested in how music can heal wounds, just think Bernstein and Russia and more recently NYPhil. and N. Korea. Language, talking, dialogue, and conversation is good but sometimes, there are things too deep and big to put into words; they are indescribable. When that is the case, you need something that is pure and the only thing that comes close to that is music. It is the one thing that dumb, smart, white, black, woman, man, and indeed Israeli and Palestinian can agree on.

    On the point made by Maya. We can not say that all things are equal. We can not say that we are the best at everything. Some of the tribes in Africa and the South Pacific can dance better than us. Some have hunters that are unrivaled in their capacity to hunt down wild beasts with nothing but scent and days old tracks to go after. Some indeed have strong poetic traditions. But if there is one thing that undoubtadly we do better than all of the tribes and even non-western civilizations, then it is music. It is something that you can not prove through words but I asure you that if you sit down and listen to Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion, French Suites, or Goldman, or Mahler 6, 3, or 1, or Mozart’s Requim, Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni, or Beethoven’s 3, 6, and 7, then you will realize the sheer beauty and bizzare pleasure of this world. The Shoshoni, Lacota, Mandan music of our tribes in America or the twang in of the Setar in India is good and exciting but it is unharmonious and unsymmetrical, those are the things that make art beautiful, and give it the splendid serneity of that civilization which had an unnatural propensity for talent, and we should be proud of that and not give it up for some sappy egalitarianism.

    • clark128 said

      Most ethnomusicologists would have to disagree with you. If you want to talk about what we (westerners) do best you cannot say “We are best at music”. As Maya has pointed out before me your natural predisposition to this music has a lot to do with your upbringing, and people more exposed to a different cultures music would probably feel quite differently. But I strayed from my point. You can’t say that western music is the better music. You could probably say something like “Westerners have the most developed and complex harmonic system”. To you (as it is to me) this is the most desirable trait in music, which means your appreciation for it is deepest. However, many people from other countries do not feel that this is an important aspect of music, and believe that things such as improvisation, rhythm or balance is the most important aspect of music. For example, in most middle eastern nations the traditional music is usually valued for its spiritual significance and how well it portrays the faith. Most westerners have a hard time appreciating it (myself included) but to the Muslims who live there it is the best kind of music. Or, in Asia much of the music written is written to reflect balance and piece, which requires harmony to be limited so tension is not created, thereby eliminating the driving force.

  3. mayacu said

    “but it is unharmonious and unsymmetrical, those are the things that make art beautiful”

    This is simply your opinion masquerading as something more important. While you believe that the music of Western composers is by far the most beautiful and the best, there are people around the world who prefer the Indian sitar, the Andean flute, or the African drums. They have just as much right to be proud of their society’s musical accomplishments as we do. Our upbringing, the likes and dislikes of those around us, and the traditions of our culture will all directly affect the types of music, food, and clothing we think are “the best.” It is erroneous to claim that Mexican food is better than all other types of foods because it is the perfect combination of spices and flavors. While you might think this, I think that the Ecuadorian’s actually have the perfect ensemble with much more subtle tastes and very little spice. To each their own. Your obvious appreciation for Western music should not be mistaken for it being the best. The West may be the best performers (and appreciators) of their own types of music, but this does not in any way mean that we undoubtedly do all music better than anyone else. Be careful when using such blanket statements as “the best” to describe such subjective things as music, art, or food, among other things. Everyone has their own opinion and yours holds just as much significance as anyone other.

    • bklunk said

      Seems to me Appiah had something to say about this–both the broken mirror bit–any musical tradition is capable of expression but also has limits in its capacity–but music is a universal and we are able to appreciate and learn from music outside our accustomed traditions.

  4. rfrankl said

    Well said, well said.

    On your first point, that could be because they have never ascended out of their cave.

    You’re right that in the last century with Stravinsky, Shoenburg, Glass, and Cage we have descended into nothingness with no direction and no ideas. Although when we were at our peak in the late 17th to the late 19th there was nothing like it.

    I respect my traditions. I respect the ideas that were given to the Western cannon by the Hellens, that is an awareness of how beauty and symmetry do come in pairs. I said that this is not a matter of argument or contest of words. It is something for you to go and discover yourself. I will listen to more of the tribal because it does have its charms such as an erotic and unusual beat; I believe all artistic attempts persude by humans have some merit, that merit is not always doled out in equal portions though.

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