Quick news bite and thoughts about binaries

il Troubadore at the Greek Islands Hafla on 17 March 2011 (photo by Kat Hill)

Just got back home from the show–the Indianapolis gigs are a good two hours drive (give or take 30 minutes for stops for coffee).  So many interesting things to share/talk about but don’t have the time as I head to Bloomington, Indiana (home to the renowned Jacobs School of Music) to play another show with my Balkan group.  Still deciding if I have time to get to this month’s GLMTA (Greater Louisville Music Teacher’s Association) meeting in the morning (urm–later this morning) but also have to go pick up a part for Hello Dolly which I’ll be playing in the pit for in April.

Still been having tons of thoughts about the economics of underserved audiences, and a recent discussion at Greg Sandow’s blog really had me thinking aloud on the drive up to the show last night.  Fortunately the wife is finishing her MBA so I got to bounce some ideas about the economics of music(s) off of her.  See, the discussion–as you can tell from the post and responses–frames the issue of Classical Music versus Pop music as a classical binary opposition that gets collapsed into a false dichotomy.  Basically, that’s the problem with binary oppositions in that they often get treated as binary distinctions, which are a different kind of logical animal altogether.

But the whole field of structuralism as well as post-structuralism relies so heavily on de Saussure’s ideas about binary oppositions and seems to be a way of thinking that is so intuitively robust, folks can’t seem to get past the fallacy involved with treating binary oppositions (e.g. good/bad; black/white) as if they were binary distinctions (e.g. good/not-good; black/not-black).  T.K. Seung brilliantly analyzes and describes the history of this fallacy in his book Structuralism and Hermeneutics.

By only framing the discussion in terms of Pop Music vs Classical Music, you’re left with loading all the terms and direction of the talk with reference to only Pop Music and Classical Music.  For example, Peter Sachon said:


I don’t know who these non-academic experimental musicians are, but I think some of them have a band called Radiohead. The only people who can’t stand what “pop music stands for” are classical musicians. We must change the classical industry’s artistic snobbery. It holds us all back.

In other words, he can’t imagine there being people who, for whatever reason, stand against Classical Music and Popular Music as there’s no other music outside of the two.  So, in his musical world, there can’t be, say, a Thai Piphat musician that absolutely hates Western Pop music and Western Classical music.  There’s no room for any musicians other than those that exist in that dichotomous world, or maybe worse yet, the Thai Piphat musician just doesn’t really count as a musician at all.  Either way, I don’t see these viewpoints as being any less elitist than the straw man Classical Musician he sets up.

Whether or not that’s just a reflection of his Western musical training in general, or more broadly his Western cultural upbringing I can’t really say.  But I think I will definitely come back to this issue, especially as it relates to how underserved audiences aren’t often seen because of how the discussions about music gets framed.

I fired off a quick response to Peter before taking off to Indy that I don’t really want to repost here as it contains some words that I would rather not show up in searches to my blog.  Such are the musical skeletons in my closet–hah!


  1. Okay, time for another one of my half-way thought out haven’t had enough coffee today responses that references nothing except my own experiences in life…

    I keep asking myself why this false dichotomy still exists, why people get away with thinking classical v. pop, with everything else being not-music. Luckily for me, a year an a half ago I wasn’t a musician, didn’t really have friends who were musicians, listened almost exclusively to pop music, and had hardly even been exposed to western classical music. Also luckily, most of my friends were/are the same way.

    This got me to thinking about audience expectations. From my experience (so, perhaps, this does not extend across the entire population) the audience almost expects this false dichotomy. We grew up with it, having snobby kids in orchestra always telling us how much we sucked and how awesome they were because they played classical music and the rest of us idiots listened to rock/pop/rap/hip-hop/country/etc. I didn’t know a single kid growing up (and growing up other kids are pretty much the whole world) who played non-western music or even listened to it. Kids either listened to various kinds of popular music or played classical music. This dichotomy exists in us because we grew up with us, it was part of our upbringing. I doubt that most people are even aware of this false idea that exists in their own heads. In fact, until I started following your blog and became interested in (someday) playing non-western music, I didn’t realize I was holding that false belief myself. It was such a part of me from such a young age that I’d never even thought to question it, even as I was exposed to non-western music as I got older.

    As I sit here reading over what I wrote, I’m thinking how ignorant that sounds, but at the same time I’m really not sure what I could have done differently — everything in my life experience had reinforced that false dichotomy, especially the more I have gotten into the classical world and the more musicians friends I’ve made. Now I see the pop v. classical problem from the classical side too. At my work we’re always listening to music and the majority of us are classical musicians, so that’s what we listen to, although we do let the people who prefer pop music have a turn also. This just keeps perpetuating the problem. Actually, the other day I almost put on some classical Indian music that was on my iPod, but I didn’t because at work we simply don’t listen to non-western music! (I’ve decided I need to bring in a bunch of non-western music and watch all the classical musicians’ brains pour out their ears. 😀 )

    Back to school/education… At the time I was in school (late 80s and 90s,) kids from other countries all ended up in separate ESL classes. The school system meant it as a kindness, but really it was just segregation. These kids weren’t forced to integrate and the rest of us didn’t really have a chance to be friends with kids from other cultures. Not only was the non-western music not part of our lives, but the non-western people weren’t! So, like I talked about in the comment thread of your post about the economics of underserved audiences, there were some really huge opportunities missed in the educational system. I would like to think my personal experience is an anomaly, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

    Okay, I’ve rambled enough… I keep thinking that at some point I should start discussing things the way everyone else does — big picture with research and data to back up what they have to say — but none of those discussions seem to get close enough to my own personal experiences and what I can relate to from my own perspective of not having grown up a musician. So, we’ll stick with this way for now.


    • From my experience (so, perhaps, this does not extend across the entire population) the audience almost expects this false dichotomy.

      I think you’re absolutely right here–expects it and usualy has no experience to the contrary as you mentioned while relating your personal experience.

      See, that’s the thing–you talk about the “segregation” issue which prevented the education system from taking one of those “teachable moments” and using them with regard to learning about other cultures and I’m recalling how while growing up in the states, I never felt comfortable talking about the music I listened to in my household.

      In fact, until I started following your blog and became interested in (someday) playing non-western music, I didn’t realize I was holding that false belief myself. It was such a part of me from such a young age that I’d never even thought to question it,

      I had no problems talking about classical music or heavy metal (yeah, I was a metalhead in high school), but I never once talked to anyone about all the Thai music that my mother would always play (via cassettes she had recorded in Thailand and brought with her) since I already felt enough like an outsider to not have to bring up just another thing that would set me further apart from the “in-crowd” (i.e. the ethnic majority).

      The first songs I learned how to sing were Thai songs. Thai music was the first music I probably heard. I remember what it was like to finally watch some Thai films that had as their subject the Isaan region (Northeast Thailand near the Laotian border)–watching them with my mother and hearing (as is often the case) sounds of the Thai Khaen or Mor Lam and how familiar that seemed to me though I could swear I’d never heard them before. My mother tells me this is the music from where we’re from and I guess there’s just enough residual aural memory left in me of hearing those sounds that made hearing them as an adult so very comforting.

      I didn’t realize how ingrained this thing was even though I was someone who grew up listening to things other than Western Classical or Western Pop–I understood there was a whole other world of music out there, but it never really registered to me how much the environment I was living in (the US) was not making it easy for me to accept it as a part of myself. How insane is that?

      And no–you discuss things however you want–having “facts” and “statistics” is fine and good if you want to quantify something, but personal anecdotes can be far more powerful a way to convey ideas.

      Actually, the other day I almost put on some classical Indian music that was on my iPod, but I didn’t because at work we simply don’t listen to non-western music! (I’ve decided I need to bring in a bunch of non-western music and watch all the classical musicians’ brains pour out their ears. 😀 )

      DO IT! 😀 And make sure to blog about their reactions!!

      You’d be doing something far kinder than I did to my co-workers when I was heavily into my noise and experimental music phase–hahaha!


      • Now that I think about it, almost no one that I knew from other countries ever talked about or listened to music from their native countries when I was around. I can honestly only think of ONE person who did! What a great tragedy. Even people I knew who moved to the US as teenagers would listen entirely to western music because they wanted to assimilate instead of be seen as outsiders. I suppose the ones who didn’t do this were the ones who stayed within their own ethnic groups who never really learned to speak English very well and suffered greatly for it. It’s back to the whole in group/out group thing you keep talking about again.

        Another thing you’ve brought up several times is how nothing ever changes from these discussions about western classical v. everything else or about just the “decline” of classical in general. I was thinking about this earlier today and about how much I’VE changed by really trying to examine myself and by trying to be active in these discussions. I got to thinking about the cliche about how you can’t change someone else only yourself. By internalizing everything talked about here you go around in your life living all these things you wish were different about the (musical) world. It wasn’t your ideas about musical change that affected me — it was your passion about so many different types of music and how you were living your musical life! It’s easy to ignore grand ideas about why things are wrong and how they should bd fixed, but it’s impossible to ignore the sincerity of your love for a song. It’s contagious! Now I’m changed and whatever direction I do or don’t take with the cello will be influenced by that. Western classical music can occupy me and satisfies me because of my lack of experience playing not because it’s my favorite music to listen to. Maybe it’s just me since I did start playing cello with a strong distaste fox western classical music and so I was wanting to be changed more than the average cellist. In any case, wherever my cello journey takes me, even if all I ever play is western classical, it won’t be the same as it would have been had I still had the classical v. pop false dichotomy mindset. One person (me) being different seems like a big deal. No it’s not enough but it’s better than it not being the case.


      • Played Itzhak Perlman’s album In The Fiddler’s House and some Ali Akbar Khan for them. Was totally ignored by one coworker, the other got really into the klezmer music but started singing opera the whole time I had on Ali Akbar Khan.


  2. Thanks, Elysia–I’m pretty exhausted from the past three days and need to get some sleep but will come back to this soon–I think I just need to start organizing all this stuff we’ve been talking about into some clear and concise way (more for my own benefit than anyone else’s) just to make things easier to follow–you’ve really given me tons of new ideas (or helped me to remember many older ones) and it’s actually refreshing to have a former non-musician’s viewpoint on many of these thoughts–musicians in general already have too many “loaded” thoughts about all these issues. or rather, I guess you could say musicians cups are too full! 😀


      • They say in the sciences that the biggest revolutions in theories are created by those who are either new to the field or outside of the field.

        They also say, in the sciences, that new theories don’t win over the establishment, but that the old scientists eventually die off and the old theories with them. 😉


      • I suspect that this will be the case in music also, although perhaps not quite so severe — after all, so much of non-western music is so beautiful that it seems impossible that at least some of the establishment will happily convert themselves! 😀

        Sadly, I don’t think I will start any musical revolutions, as awesome as that would be. This lack of competency at playing western cello is still a wee bit of a problem. I suspect that I will only start trying to play non-western music when I’ve given up all hope of ever not sounding like complete garbage — If I’m going to sound like crap, may as well play all the kinds of music I like really horribly.

        But, if I ever do stop sounding like crap, I will start a revolution — the one that turns everyone’s ideas about how we learn upside down and makes their brains ooze out of their ears and nose because no one seems to think I can be an awesome cellist. So, if I get there, it’ll definitely be a revolution!


  3. […] In the Year 1390,” by Porochista Khakpour, and it reminded me of some things Elysia and I had been discussing about immigrants, or ethnic minorities experiences with being able to openly express aspects of […]


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