Monday, August 27, 2018

Teaching Music & Difference: Thick Listening

By Angela Glaros

Note: This essay is the third installment in Musicology Now's "Teaching Music & Difference" series, which features additional essays by Jesus Ramos-Kittrell, Rebekah Moore, and Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone.

I don’t teach ethnomusicology full-time, or even a single course devoted to music.  I’m an anthropologist who does ethnomusicological research.  I teach in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at Eastern Illinois University.  Our Introduction to Anthropology course (taught by myself and my other full-time anthropology colleague) counts toward our anthropology minor as well as our sociology major.  It also helps fulfill the university’s general education requirements, specifically Citizenship in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, which includes courses that emphasize civics, ethics, or diversity.  As EIU’s catalog states, “Diversity courses focus on students’ capacity for viewing issues or problems from multiple perspectives…[t]he examination of history, language, and/or traditions of other countries or cultures (anthropological, artistic, literary, philosophical, political, or sociological) aids in using cultural sensitivity when making informed and ethical decisions.”<1>  As a survey course, “Intro to Anthro” covers a wide spectrum of topics: culture, ethnography, economic systems, kinship, religion, gender, and many others.  Moreover, my colleague and I enjoy the freedom in our individual sections to choose our own books and arrange our topics to take advantage of our particular areas of expertise.

Such freedom, however, is tempered by larger institutional factors.  For example, our school of music already offers a “Non-Western Music” course whose description promises that “[t]he music of a variety of world cultures, such as Asian, African, and South American, will be examined in their appropriate contexts.”<2> Given the often territorial nature of academic departments, particularly during challenging economic times, the only opportunity for me to bring my own research into the classroom without appearing to duplicate courses taught elsewhere was to incorporate ethnomusicology, albeit briefly, into my Intro classes.

At first, I simply lectured about music, explaining the relationship of anthropology to ethnomusicology, discussing the ethnomusicological shift from studying music in culture to music as culture, reviewing classes of instruments, and talking about what kinds of things the study of music can show us (relationships to nature, gender relations, etc.).  I also discussed dance, focusing on how bodily motion and the use of space engaged local cosmologies.  After a few semesters, however, that lecture morphed into a combination of in-class exercise and mini-lecture that I called “Thick Listening,” after Geertz’s (1973) discussion of the importance of “thick description” in ethnographic interpretation. <3> While Damon Krukowski uses “thick listening” in his 2017 Paris Review article to refer to the process of listening to noise in analog music, I have been using the term since at least 2014 in the ways described above.  In any case, our respective meanings are not unrelated, since Krukowski describes the process of listening through surface noise back to the original conditions of the recording—that is, to original cultural production—in ways that make ethnographic sense.<4>

This  “Thick Listening” exercise is intended to expose students to some of ethnomusicology’s methods and questions, and also to counter the visual bias prevalent in college classrooms by forcing them to rely on their ears.  I begin by questioning the status of music as a “universal language,” an old chestnut that most students have heard and accepted.  Then I play four samples, allowing ample time for listening and writing down their descriptions as thickly as they can.  Next, we briefly discuss each one to identify common observations.  Finally, I perform a “reveal” where I identify each sample and discuss some of the features of this form of music.  Currently, my samples include a Bosavi recording from Steven Feld’s research in Papua New Guinea, a Byzantine rendering of Psalm 136 by Greek Orthodox monks, Tuvan throat singing, and a Northern Plains pow-wow song.<5>  Three out of four of these tracks involve no instrumentation, which simplifies the listening process and showcases a variety of vocal techniques, allowing me to provide more context, drawn from my own research on vocal aesthetics.  Additionally, the pow-wow song bridges music and dance, incorporating older research of mine on pow-wow dancing in Montana, while the Byzantine chant engages my ongoing research on liturgical chanting.

What do students hear?  
While almost no one recognizes any of the music samples before the “reveal,” I am continually surprised by how much students identify.  They are particularly attentive to the relationship of sound and space.  For example, students point out water sounds in the background of the Bosavi recording (which takes place near a waterfall), and they observe that the Byzantine piece sounds like it’s being played in a large stone building, pointing out the reverberation.  They notice song structure, particularly call-and-response, which also shows up in both of these pieces.  They also notice rhythm, which is hard to miss in the pow-wow song, given the presence of percussion.  And they make reasonable guesses as to the gender of singers, based on pitch and vocal quality.

How do we further “thicken” the listening?  
During the “reveal,” I discuss the related concepts of aesthetics and cosmology, pointing out how music can show us how people construct their worlds through sound.  In the Bosavi example, the cascading voices serve as metaphor not only for the waterfall, but also for the Bosavi style of communicating that they call “making talk together,” as Feld discusses in “Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or ‘Lift-up-over Sounding.’”<6>

For the Byzantine chant, I explain the importance of the drone not only to sound but as a sonic icon of the Church, providing a place for errant souls to return, just as the drone helps wandering lead chanters come back to the tonic.  With the Tuvan example, I discuss the importance of animism, and how the sounds of throat singing may be interpreted as literally otherworldly.  Finally, with pow-wow, I discuss the importance of the circle—the shape of the drum, the circle of dancers, and the cosmological relation of all beings, while they also see the relationship of dance to the song with a video clip of a pow-wow grand entry.  In each case, what makes music sound “right” is married to some extent to how people understand themselves in relation to each other and their world(s).

What don’t students hear when asked to listen thickly?
My classroom sound technology doesn’t lend itself to the “thickest” listening, as individual headphones might.  Some students hear more nuance than others, depending on the particular classroom.  However, the largest challenge I face is simply my students’ lack of exposure to people who live and believe differently from them, which affects the entire semester, not just this lesson plan.  Their responses to unfamiliar sounds are somehow more immediate, visceral, and potentially problematic, since “gut reactions” tend to be difficult to unpack and interpret in limited time frames.  For example, while many students recognize the Byzantine chant as something Christian, because they hear the word “Alleluia” or because it resembles church music they’ve heard, some laugh at the throat singing, commenting that it “sounds like a burp.”  Others describe the high male falsetto of pow-wow singing as “violent,” like “screaming.”  Here is where I interject my story of similar prejudice in white towns that bordered reservations, where people described pow-wow singing as “war whoops.”  For context, I play students the end of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” as another example of a high, strident male falsetto with a definite place in the mainstream American soundscape.<7>

If I could devote more time to music in my Intro class, I would address some of the gaps in students’ music literacy, particularly Western art music and its history, without which additional comparisons to more familiar forms of music prove challenging (though here, the music majors come to class overprepared, if anything).  Without the ability to listen thickly and reflexively to a wider range of Western genres, I worry that this exercise doesn’t do enough to prevent the exoticization of “other” musics, negating the possibility that they, too, incorporate Western identities, values, and contexts, as Jesús Ramos-Kittrell has suggested in his recent post.  To take my students beyond Western and non-Western as categories that constrain their musical understanding, this exercise must emphasize that it isn’t only “Others” who link sound and cosmology in some sort of mystic fashion; rather, all of us make and remake our worlds through sound all the time.


<1>Eastern Illinois University. 2018. Course Catalog, General Education. May 10, 2018.
<2>MUS 3562G,  Accessed May 10, 2018.
<3>Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  The Interpretation of Cultures.  New York: Basic Books.
<4>Krukowski, Damon.  2017.  "Surface Noise."  Paris Review.  April 21, 2017. Accessed May 8, 2018.
<5>“Ulahi and Eyo:bo Sing at a Waterfall.” Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea. SFW CD 40487.  Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2001; Monks of Simonopetro.  “Exomologiste To [Give Thanks Unto the Lord]."  Agni Parthene: The Monks of Simonopetro are Chanting.  B0002J6EEU.  Fataka Records, 1990; Tuva Ensemble.  “Kargiraa-Style Song.” Tuva: Voices from the Land of the Eagle.  PAN2005CD.  Pan Records, 1993; Northern Cree Singers.  “Singer’s Song.” Nikamo—“Sing!”—Pow-Wow Songs Recorded Live at Samson.  CR-6378.  Canyon Records, 2005.
<6>Feld, Steven. "Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or 'Lift-up-over Sounding': Getting into the Kaluli Groove." Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 20 (1988), pp. 74-113.

<7>Led Zeppelin.  "Stairway to Heaven."  Led Zeppelin IV.  ATL 50-008.  Atlantic Records, 1971.


Angela Glaros is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Eastern Illinois University.

1 comment:

  1. Nice intervention into teaching about music and culture. I really like the notion of thickening listening, and your reference to Bosavi "making talk together" if not also listing to sound together is so on point. I plan to look into that work myself. - Chuck Springwood