“Eurocentrism? We Aren’t The World” by Jon Pareles

Can’t believe this was written over twenty years ago:


What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Music, popular and classical, is a potent cultural symbol, one that arouses visceral reactions as well as rational ones. It speaks to its listeners’ sense of place and history, and to deep-seated beliefs about the organization of communities and the perception of time. And many people like to think that the music they love is timeless, eternal, universally recognized as a pinnacle of human achievement – not a historically conditioned, minority preference in a big world.

Part of the Eurocentrism battle has to do with whether the gamelan should be discussed alongside the orchestra, the talking drum alongside the tympani (and, perhaps, the telephone). Opponents of such a broadened curriculum raise the specter of students learning about the sitar instead of the violin, which no one is actually proposing. Still, defenders of the Western classical tradition, already feeling beleaguered by changing public tastes, now face credentialed colleagues who can point out that notated concert music is a relatively recent, relatively local phenomenon compared to age-old oral (and often improvisational) traditions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For some people, Eurocentrism equals elitism, the determination to protect what’s best. In music, it’s not elitism – it’s just plain ignorance.

I thought the following was as woefully parochial as as the “standard, Eurocentric classical-music education” that the author bemoans as “woefully limited” because of its focus on “reading music rather than improvisation, re-creation rather than creation” and dependance “on the score rather than [the] ears“:

The Eurocentrists ask, Where are the masterpieces outside the Western European tradition? And where are the composers whose music has survived the centuries? Those are trick questions, based on assumptions that are themselves Eurocentric. The Western European tradition treats music as something that resides in a tangible (and salable) artifact like a score or recording. But in other places and times, sometimes including our own, music has been more properly considered as sounds in the air, made to be heard once by an immediate audience – which might even participate, or dance.

Continue reading ““Eurocentrism? We Aren’t The World” by Jon Pareles”

Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950

In Chapter 5, “Excellence and its Identification,” of Charles Murray’s book (Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950) the author writes in the section titled The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental:

To accept the position I just laid out requires one to adopt considerable humility about the arts in which one is not an expert.  While I am free to not enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, it is silly for me to try to argue that Richard Wagner does not deserve his standing as one of the greatest composers.  That’s a matter of judgment and I’m not competent to judge (Mark Twain said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” which seems about right to me).  Surrendering that independent judgment is irksome, and gets more so as one’s knowledge approaches the fringes of expertise.  I know more about literature than I know about music, and I nonetheless do not enjoy the later novels of Henry James that are most highly regarded by the experts.  But my wife is an expert on Henry James and over the years I have had to accept that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

In dealing with such situations, Hume’s distinction between sentiment and judgment is invaluable.  One is not required to surrender one’s opinions, but merely to acknowledge their nature.  I am not able to argue that the later Henry James does not write well; all I can do is assert that his later style is not to my taste–an assertion that is true and valid within its limits.  The cliché “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is in this sense a precise and admirable preface to whatever comment comes next.

Setting aside some of the issues regarding excellence and music I mentioned in a previous post, I was struck by how much Murray’s sentiment [sic] regarding only being able to assert an opinion about our relationship to works of art was something I talked about in my undergraduate thesis.  Namely that most of the things we say about anything has to do with our relationship to that thing rather than about any Kantian Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”).  His relationship to how Hume deals with that issue is probably a bit clearer than Hume himself ever was. Continue reading “Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)”