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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Effects of Place on Music, and Vice Versa

Lori and I were looking at places to visit while in India, and boy are there a lot to look at. The state of Karnataka, which houses our little refugee community, is a tropical and cultural paradise. The place is incredibly green, and incredibly full of temples, shrines, and people (though, thankfully, Bylakuppe is spared from the denseness of population of, say, another refugee settlement like Dharamshala.). Nothing could be more different from the place the refugees have come from - the cold, expansive desert of the "roof of the world."

Hampi, in Karnataka


The interrelationship of environment and music has just recently become a topic of serious inquiry in scholarly circles, particularly among those who call themselves "human" or "cultural" geographers. Topics as wide as the use of music to forward industry in failing communities to the musical habits of geriatric groups in small towns have produced in-depth studies, and the cultural geography community, as well as those who benefit from their research, are taking a closer listen to the human family. Looking at these pictures of different landscapes got me thinking - how has the transition from the Tibetan highlands to the Indian lowlands affected the production of music in Bylakuppe? Tibetan monastic music, as well as folk music (particularly shepherd song), is definitely a product of the acoustic phenomena present in the Himalaya, just as much as Gregorian chant is a product of the long reverberation times of large cathedrals (but, after the genesis of the chant, the interplay between music and cathedral building is hard to follow - did the cathedrals get bigger so reverb times could grow, or did the composers write in response to increased church size?). The huge horns, loud cymbals, and large drums of Tibet are instruments designed to travel across the vast plains and echo off the never-ending white-capped walls of the eternal mountains. On the folk side, the plaintive song of the shepherd immediately directs the imagination in the direction of the lone protector of the flock leading his livelihood through mountain passes. What happens to these songs when translated into the densely attenuated echo-space produced by thick forests and tropical rain?

Looking at music this way, perhaps singing the traditional songs of the homeland is a way to travel there for a few moments, to relive and recapture the freedom of wide-open spaces and the safety of living nestled between mountain-sentinels. And perhaps the new musics being produced by youth represent not only the shrinking world village and crosstalk of cultures enabled by internet and a new physical location, but also reflect the polarity of the green environment they have grown up in compared with their parents' white ancestral home. In a conversation with a classmate who has lived in a Tibetan community, I found that the longer a Tibetan family has been in India, the more they shift their culinary preferences toward ingredients readily found in India, and drink less butter-tea and eat less tsampa. Are the Himalayan horns and cacophonous drums being traded for nagaswaram and mridangam? Or for drum sets and electric guitars? And what of Tibetan music is persistent, responding little or not at all to the changed physical and cultural climate? 

These questions, I insist in accord with a main premise of ethnomusicology, are important for not only artistic purposes but for the wider and grander purpose of coming to a greater understanding of identity, for it is in the artistic expression of a people that the finer ineffable points of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a human in a particular time and place, begin to surface.

There is, of course, the problem of defining what exactly "Tibetan-ness" is, but that remains for another time.

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