Beginning of Semester Field Notes

Well, it’s a new semester as of yesterday when I returned from Italy. Courses include the music of India, the music of Indonesia, a seminar in field/lab techniques, a theory seminar in ethnomusicology, and two ensembles: Gamelan & African. I’m also auditing two courses: Tibetan historiography, and ancient religions of Tibet.  I’m TA’ing both pop & roots music again – though this time, pop is at 8am.

It all seems rather suicidal at this point. Why? I completed my infamous productivity tally after having decided that I only got off kilter last semester when I stopped keeping track of my hours. My total number of work + sleep hours equals 168 per week. The only problem is that there is exactly that many hours in a week, so the 30+ hours of “wiggle room” (though it never really was) I had in the fall doesn’t exist anymore. Hopefully I can adjust some of the projected hours within a few weeks, otherwise something’s got to give.

Rome was amazing of course. My flight to and from was quite disastrous. Between snow storms and invalid out-of-country tickets, everything that could have gone wrong probably did. With that said, we had a great time. I spent all of New Year’s day sick in our room with a fever, which is a bit sad, however my partner kept reminding me I could be sick with a view of the colosseum, or sick with a view of a waffle house. I think I’ll take the colosseum. P.S. I even stayed sober on New Year’s Eve!

The only music I heard the entire time I was in Italy includes Gangsta’s Paradise (in a supermarket), We Will Rock You (at an ice-skating rink), children’s choirs as I listened from the dome of St. Peter’s during Sunday mass (amazing),  and quite possibly the worst street violinist I’ve ever heard (while in line for the Vatican)…I know – as an ethnomusicologist, everything is supposed to be relative, but this guy was just terrible and I would much rather have enjoyed listening to the multi-language soundscape that surrounded me in line.

I did leave with a few opinions:

  1. The Sistine Chapel has nothing on St. Peter’s Basilica.  Ok – maybe this isn’t entirely true… but the Basilica was just entirely amazing.
  2. I finally understand what everyone means when they say the Sistine Chapel is in 3D.
  3. Roman taxi drivers are insane. Going 166 kph on narrow cobblestone streets just isn’t right.
  4. I’ll take New Year’s Eve in Rome over Times Square any day.
  5. Maybe, just maybe… their cuisine beats New Orleans. Even Chinese food in Rome was amazing.

That’s all for now – back to my to-do list…


Sacred vs. Profane

A professor of mine, Dr. Guy Beck, addresses the topic of sacred vs. profane in the context of religion. If you’ve never really thought about it, you should. I’ll probably talk about it again. The distinction is crucial when talking about ethnomusicology. There’s never really a gray area.

It’s crucial because music, whether sacred or profane, gives [part of our] identity to culture. Aside from it, people can share similar or identical religious beliefs while at the same time associating with different cultures and performing music. So we should give some definition to each one:

Sacred means timeless, ineffable, vertical, spiritual, perhaps extraordinary. It harbors depth. It is hard for Western minds (not that I’m Eastern) to grasp the idea of sacred without immediately thinking of the Christian God. It is important to note that the concept of sacred I mean here is not limited to the Christian God, nor any other. It’s definition stays attached to the listed words above.

On the other hand, the concept of profanity has, in contemporary culture, earned a negative stigma. Yet, the term is temporal, prosaic, ordinary, pedestrian, horizontal. Examples of profanity in our context here could include such mundane things such as doing laundry or paying bills.

(Sacred and profane love – Titian, Borghese Gallery, Rome)

The term comes from ‘profanis’, which translates to “outside the gates of the tabernacle”. This references the tabernacle (a place of worship as directed by God in Numbers & Leviticus) containing the Ark of the Covenant. However, no musical instruments or singing were connected with the tabernacle services. Outside of the buildings, the Levites held the position of playing the shofar (ram’s horn) for ceremonious sacrifices).Therefore, profane simply means the opposite of sacred.

It’s important to distinguish between the two when speaking of music in a cultural context. Music is just that – either sacred or profane. Either it is written for the purpose of sanctity or is simply ordinary. Bach certainly knew the difference. This, culturally speaking, is the first distinction we’ll make of cultures and their ‘musicking‘ (a term coined by MENC member and music educator Christopher Small that I use ALL the time so get used to it!)

Classical musicians can relate to these two ideas by thinking of absolute vs. program music, whereas absolute music refers to music that is not explicitly about anything per se, and program music is a form of art music intended to provoke ‘extra-musical’ ideas – religious ones perhaps, or a story being told (think Opera). These terms however, are generally strictly applied to European classical music. Hopefully the correlation makes sacred vs. profane a bit more accessable.

Now some examples:

Sacred Music:
Bach’s Organ Works (Lutheran)
Tibetan Chant
Judaic recitation
Gregorian Chant

Profane Music:
Can you think of any music that is ‘ordinary’?

There are those that would argue that rock and roll is sacred, along with the hip-hop genre and even street music. American pop music for sure (no, not all of it), Sousa marches, aleatoric music…etc etc etc

(For more reading on sacred vs. profane, pick up a copy of “the Sacred and the Profane” by Mercia Eliade [1907-1986], a Romanian scholar.