Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Saariaho’s L’amour de loin: First Woman Composer in a Century at the Metropolitan Opera

by Ronit Seter

Kaija Saariaho was in an understandably anxious mood when I interviewed her on Saturday morning, 14 November 2015. It was the third day of the AMS Louisville meeting, which coincided with the University of Louisville New Music Festival, where Saariaho and composer and visual artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière were featured. Overwhelmed by the previous night’s horrific news of the ISIS attack in Paris, her adopted home for over thirty years and the home of her children, she seemed to channel earlier interviews in answering several of my introductory questions. Only when I asked her about her stylistic development did our session begin to unfold into something more distinctive. Perhaps annoyed, she declared that she is not a spectralist, in an attempt to avoid being tagged and lumped together with other musical spectralists, or with any given “-ism,” yet again.

This allegro agitato introduction aside, Saariaho (pronounced Sàariaho, b. 1952) , is one of the greatest composers of her generation. Her works are performed extensively and she has consequently assumed a solid position in the canon. Christopher Gibbs honored the composer by concluding the massive Taruskin-Gibbs 2013 Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition with a discussion of her opera, L’amour de loin (Love from afar, 2000). Indeed, L’amour de loin will be the first opera in a century by a woman composer to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera. Scheduled for December 2016, this production will follow a dozen previous productions on European and American major opera stages; a remarkable number for a contemporary opera produced in the last thirty years. Her professional finesse consistently impresses composers, musicologists, critics, and audiences. For the AMS readership, I find it hard to resist quoting David E. Schneider—a Bartók scholar with a great deal of experience performing new music—following her convocation lecture on Thursday, 12 November, “this [her music] is the real thing.”

The ascendance of a woman composer to the Met, second only to Ethel Smyth in 1903, invites a spirited examination of how gender shapes Saariaho’s art—a step that would enrage many women composers. Yet it is the emerging historical significance of Saariaho’s achievements that is of note here—as an influential composer for her achievements in timbre, style, and structure, first and foremost, but also as a woman composer. Saariaho’s gender is discussed most extensively by Pirkko Moisala, professor of musicology and gender studies at the University of Helsinki, in her 2009 biography Kaija Saariaho. Moisala worked intensively with the composer to produce a text that, on the one hand, describes her life and music and is approved by Saariaho (thus raising a question of critical distance); on the other, serves as the first in-depth study of the role of gender in her work and its reception—an essentialist theme that the composer took pains to avoid, skirt, dismiss, and suppress in interviews especially during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Being dubbed a “woman composer,” considering its heavy (we still cannot call it “past”) conceptual baggage, would undermine her reception. Her adamancy on the issue was such that during the 2015 AMS session “Women Composing Modern Opera,”[1] Susan McClary—who discussed the composer in her presence—commenced her presentation describing Saariaho’s resistance to the label, and criticized contemporary musicology’s preoccupation with essentialism.[2] Culminating her presentation, McClary stated that “the policing of artistic content poses a greater threat than essentialism”. I contend that this is also true in policing musicological content. Indeed, I was deeply appreciative of one of her earlier presentations about Saariaho, during the 2012 Princeton conference entitled “After the End of Music History” honoring Taruskin, where McClary and Wendy Heller were the only presenters, among about thirty, who discussed works by female composers. I wrote to McClary soon after the conference, and in response, she shared with me not only her less-known “Different Drummers: Interpreting Music by Women Composers”[3] and her liner notes for Saariaho’s monodrama Emilie (2008), but she also memorably explained the conundrum of writing about current women composers, with which I could wholly sympathize:
To tell you the truth, I got such fiercely negative reactions to my ideas from women composers that I decided not to work in that area anymore. After Feminine Endings and “Different Drummers” (which upset many women), I just went back to doing my research on early music. After all, women composers have a hard enough time of it, and if I was contributing to their discomfort, I didn’t want to continue in that vein. I tried to exhort other musicologists to pay attention to the music written by women, but they seemed to think that this was an essentialist project. Very little happened as a consequence.[4]
Some things did change, however gradually and slowly, at least for Saariaho, even before Moisala’s book, culminating in the upcoming production. L’amour de loin looms as her tour de force. An opera about love and death—the eternal theme—it leads the listener through a spiritual-emotional journey. As opposed to most traditional operas, almost nothing happens, and the minimalism in action is mirrored in Peter Sellars’s atypically minimal approach in his staging of the premiere.[5] Still, the opera is mesmerizing, first and foremost for the sheer beauty of her musical language, inspired by spectralist techniques. L’amor de loin requires enormous ingenuity from its composer in that little action occurs in a traditional sense. The drama is almost entirely internal, occurring within the minds of the protagonists. Saariaho rises to the challenge with her travels through Western music, encompassing elements from Medieval tunes, which informed the undulating, secundal melodies, slightly modal in fractions of the lavish lines, through “Liebestod,” which is hinted at the end of the opera, where the protagonist, Jaufré Rudel dies after a long emotional journey, as he finally reaches Clémence, the faraway love of his life. A composition which references, however remotely, twelfth-century melodies (the original Rudel story is from that time), romantic lyricism, Pelléas et Mélisande quasi-parlando style in its recitatives, Messaien’s spirituality, shadows of Ligeti’s clusters, glimpses of both minimalist concept of time and spectral approach to orchestration, and additionally, encompassing a broad continuum between monophony, homophony, polyphony and heterophony, when textures are not juxtaposed but rather dissolve or metamorphose into one another—could easily fall into the nebulous category of “postmodern” works, or more recent pastiche and polystylistic movements. It does not. Saariaho’s careful sculpturing of these elements into her signature harmonic-orchestral-structural language (in a sharp contrast to, say, Schnittke’s or Rochberg’s third quartets) makes her seams natural, almost unnoticeable. New spirituality, if we may dare to add one more tag to our rhetorical foil, radiates from her music as she shares conceptual bases with later twentieth-century spiritualist composers, Pärt, Silvestrov, and Reich (think of his Tehillim, Proverb, WTC 9/11) among them—sharply distinguished from their divergent trends, for stylistic reasons. Now as an honorable scion of a certain thread of Western music, Saariaho returns, not only conceptually and not only in her opera, to our ancient roots: to music about love and death and the beauty of the cosmos and the divine.

Interview Index

I Kaija Saariaho in interview with Ronit Seter, Introduction
II Saariaho: Finnish and French Composer  1'03''
III Saariaho’s Stylistic Voyage: Cultural Transitions  3'59''
IV Saariaho’s Stylistic Voyage: Continuing the History of Western Music  6'58''
V Saariaho on Threads of Western Music, Spectralism  9'03''
VI Saariaho: the Sonic Result, First and Foremost  12'18''
VII Saariaho’s First Opera: L’amour de loin  14'00''
VIII Inspiring Saariaho’s Opera: Debussy and Messiaen  18'00''

IX Saariaho, a Woman Composer  20'24''-27'10''

[1] The AMS Louisville 2015 session “Women Composing Modern Opera” was organized by Daniel Goldmark and chaired by Suzanne Cusick.
[2] Susan McClary, “Kaija Saariaho and Peter Sellars: Staging Feminism,” a paper delivered at the annual conference of the AMS in Louisville, 2015, p. 4. I thank McClary for sharing this unpublished paper days after the conference.
[3] Susan McClary, “Different Drummers:  Interpreting Music by Women Composers,” Frauen- und Männerbilder in der Musik: Festschrift für Eva Rieger, ed. Freia Hoffmann, Jane Bowers, and Ruth Heckmann (Oldenburg:  Bibliotheks- und Informationsystem der Universität Oldenburg, 2000), 113-26.
[4] My email correspondence with Susan McClary, 1 March 2012, cited by permission. This encouraged me to keep writing about living women composers (Betty Olivero among them), despite similar responses from some of them. Writings about women composers do sprout faster than ever. [5] See, for instance, the University of Illinois Press’s women composers series, including two books by Amy Beal, on Carla Bley (2011) and Johana Beyer (2015); one of their first titles in this series was Pirkko Moisala, Kaija Saariaho (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
Kaija Saariaho: L’amour de loin (Finnish National Opera under Esa-Pekka Salonen, directed by Peter Sellars), Deutsche Grammophon 2005, DVD 00440 073 4026.

Ronit Seter has served on the faculties of the Peabody Conservatory, George Washington University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and American University (DC). A contributor to the Grove Music Online, she has published in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Encyclopedia Judaica, Tempo, Notes, Min-Ad, Journal of the American Musicological Society, and Musical Quarterly. Her book in progress on Israeli composers, supported by an NEH Fellowship, is under contract with Oxford University Press. She is co-founder of the AMS study group Jewish Studies and Music. Seter earned her Ph.D. at Cornell University, and she lives in Fairfax, VA, where she also teaches piano privately. She is affiliated with the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

What do All These Beatles Covers Tell Us?

by Christopher Reynolds

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Digital Id cph.3c11094
Studies of cover songs have deservedly proliferated in the last decade. Singers and groups are understood to shape their musical identities in their treatment of an earlier song, indeed, even in their choices of which songs to cover. For years I have found in my teaching, first in a rock history class, now in one on the music of The Beatles, that the comparison of an original song with a good cover provides a chance to talk about how music, words, and performance work together to create artistic meanings, at times diametrically opposed meanings. Now, thanks to a wonderful database devoted to covers,, it is possible to use cover songs to measure the artistic impact of a singer, songwriter, or rock group. As of 4 June 2016, provides information on 372,225 covers of 54,019 original songs.

There is no better demonstration of what this data opens up for study than measuring the legacies of songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney against those of other groups that competed with them week by week through the 1960s. A comparison of how many Beatles’ songs were covered as opposed to those of their most successful contemporaries offers a measure of how artistically significant Beatles’ songs have been in the last half century. While compiling lists of #1 hits and data about recording sales provides a commercial measure of success, comparing the number of times a song has been covered provides an artistic yardstick. It documents the choices other musicians have made about songs they admire and think will advance their own careers.

I’ve chosen to compare the songs of Lennon and McCartney to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards), Chuck Berry, and four of Motown’s most successful songwriting teams, (1) Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland, Brian Holland; (2) Smokey Robinson, who often worked with someone else; (3) Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield; and (4) Berry Gordy, Jr., who normally worked with others. The total number of songs by each of these songwriters that have been covered ranges widely. I compiled these numbers from on 4 June 2016.

Bob Dylan: 275 songs covered
Motown songwriters: 217
Beatles: 192
Rolling Stones: 141
Chuck Berry: 59

Because many of these songs were covered by just one or two others, these totals are not as revealing as a comparison of their most widely covered songs. For each of these, then, I have created top ten lists. The numbers for their most covered songs are as follows. Those for The Beatles appear last.

Bob Dylan: Top 10 Covers
“Blowin’ in the Wind” – 189
“All Along the Watchtower” – 98
“Mr. Tambourine Man” – 88
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – 87
“Like a Rolling Stone” – 82
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – 81
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” – 81
“I Shall Be Released” – 77
“It Ain’t Me Babe” – 68
“Just Like a Woman” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – both 67

Motown Top 10 Covers of songs by – (1) Holland, Dozier, Holland; (2) Smokey Robinson; (3) Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield; (4) Berry Gordy, Jr. and Janie Bradford. The names of the first singer(s) to record the songs appear in parentheses.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (3) (The Miracles) – 101
“Money (That’s What I Want)” (4) (Barrett Strong) – 93
“My Girl” (2) (The Temptations) – 90
“Reach Out and I’ll Be There” (1) (The Hollies) – 87
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1) (The Supremes) – 69
“Ain’t That Peculiar” (2) (Marvin Gaye) – 66
“How Sweet It Is” (1) (Marvin Gaye) – 65
“I Want You Back” (4) (The Jackson Five) – 61
“Tracks of My Tears” (2) (The Miracles) – 51
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (2) (The Miracles) – 49

Rolling Stones: Top 10 Covers
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – 189
“Paint It Black” – 138
“Honky Tonk Women” (aka “Country Honk”) – 70
“Jumpin Jack Flash” – 62
“Gimmie Shelter” – 57
“Sympathy for the Devil” – 53
“Ruby Tuesday” – 52
“The Last Time” – 50
“Wild Horses” – 50
“Play With Fire” – 46

Chuck Berry: Top 10 Covers
“Johnny B. Goode” – 130
“Memphis, Tennessee” – 128
“Maybellene” – 71
“Roll Over Beethoven” – 70
“Run Rudolph Run” – 57
“School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) – 52
“You Can Never Tell” – 50
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” – 45
“Reelin’ and Rockin’” – 40
“Rock & Roll Music” – 39

The Beatles: Top 10 Covers
“Yesterday” – 453
“Eleanor Rigby” – 326
“Hey Jude” – 210
“And I Love Her” – 203
“Something” – 202
“Here, There and Everywhere” – 201
“Let It Be” – 194
“Michelle” – 192
“Blackbird” – 190
“Come Together” – 181

In the context of other contemporary acts, the volume of Beatles covers is extraordinary. None of the other songwriting teams – as successful as they were – comes close. The numbers are all the more impressive because all of the other songwriters continued writing songs long after The Beatles disbanded, and I have not included songs that Lennon and McCartney subsequently wrote for themselves. At best, the most covered song of any of these others would rank as the tenth most-covered song of The Beatles:

Beatles    Bob Dylan    Rolling Stones     Berry          Motown
   453               189              189                  130              101
   326                 98              138                  128                93
   210                 88                70                    71                90
   203                 87                62                    70                86
   202                 82                57                    57                69
   201                 81                53                    52                66
   194                 81                52                    50                65
   192                 77                50                    45                61
   190                 68                50                    40                51
   181                 67                46                    39                49

Something else unexpectedly emerges from the top-10 list for The Beatles: the dominance of McCartney’s songs. Only the last on the list, “Come Together”, is solely by Lennon. The fourth, “And I Love Her”, was a joint Lennon-McCartney effort, and “Something” is by George Harrison. All the others are by McCartney. Is this evidence that he has been the more influential composer? Or perhaps only that his songs are more tuneful – an assertion often made – and are therefore more likely to be covered, or, are more likely to be covered by ensembles and singers other than rock musicians?

But there is commercial evidence that McCartney achieved more as a songwriter than Lennon even during the years The Beatles were together. Here is a list of songs by Lennon and McCartney that made it to #1 either in the UK or the US. I group the songs in two-year periods and note whether they were composed singly or jointly.

“Love Me Do” (1962) – JL/PM
“Please Please Me” (1963) – JL
“From Me to You” (1963) – JL/PM
“She Loves You” (1963) – JL/PM
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) – JL/PM
“Can’t Buy Me Love” (1964) – PM
“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) – JL
“I Feel Fine” (1964) – JL                                            PM = 1, JL = 3, JL/PM = 4

“Eight Days a Week” (1965) – JL/PM
“Ticket to Ride” (1965) – JL
“Help!” (1965) – JL
“Yesterday” (1965) – PM
“Day Tripper” (1965) – JL/PM
“We Can Work It Out” (1965) – JL/PM
“Paperback Writer” (1966) – JL/PM
“Yellow Submarine” (1966) – PM
“Eleanor Rigby” (1966) – PM
“Penny Lane” (1966) – PM                                        PM = 4, JL = 2, JL/PM = 4
“All You Need Is Love” (1967) – JL
“Hello, Goodbye” (1967) – PM
“Lady Madonna” (1968) – PM
“Hey Jude” (1968) – PM                                            PM = 3, JL = 1, JL/PM = 0
“Get Back” (1969) – PM
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969) – JL
“Come Together” (1969) – JL
“Let It Be” (1970) – PM
“The Long and Winding Road” (1970) – PM             PM = 3, JL = 2, JL/PM = 0

“Paperback Writer” was a pivotal song in the Lennon-McCartney collaboration. Of the 27 of their songs that became #1 hits in the US and/or the UK, it falls near the middle at number 15, with 14 #1 songs before and 12 after. As the last of the collaborative Lennon-McCartney songs, it marks a turning point in their best-selling songs. McCartney’s ascent stands out clearly. Through “Paperback Writer” the successes were more evenly shared: eight #1 songs were collaborative, two were by McCartney and five by Lennon. Afterwards, the tide shifts away from Lennon and away from collaboration. None of the remaining twelve were jointly composed, three were by Lennon and nine by McCartney.

Lennon’s decline may be the result of his much greater drug use during these years, both LSD and heroin, and his 1968 divorce. McCartney’s success writing the Beatles’ biggest hits after “Paperback Writer” was surely not lost on Lennon. Perhaps it stoked his unhappiness about working collaboratively with McCartney. Once he was free of The Beatles, Lennon composed “Imagine,” a song that currently has 213 covers, by far more than any of McCartney’s post-Beatle efforts.

Because their later songs seem to be those more often covered, there may be a link between McCartney’s dominance in the top-10 list of songs covered and his rise as a writer of #1 hits. A closer mapping of the data now available in will help affirm or dismiss this possibility.

Christopher Reynoldsimmediate past president of the American Musicological Society, is Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis. His most recent posting to Musicology Now dealt with his database of songs by women, “Growing the Database of Women Songwriters, 1890-1930.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Launch of New Professional Choral Group: Ora

by Victoria Cooper, Director, Cooper Digital Publishing Ltd

ORA - "...a musical comet..."

As many of my AMS colleagues know, in 2015 I retired from my position as Senior Commissioning Editor of music and theatre books at Cambridge University Press, founding my company, Cooper Digital Publishing Ltd., to develop apps and iBooks in a wide range of areas.

Among other projects with my new work, I am especially proud to have been elected onto the Board of Trustees of the new professional a cappella vocal ensemble Ora, directed by Suzi Digby. Ora recently was launched at a private concert at the Tower of London and has just brought out its first CD, ‘Upheld by Stillness: Renaissance Gems and their Reflections’ (Amazon UK and Amazon US) with the Harmonia Mundi label. Ora’s second recording will be released in autumn 2016, with further CDs underway, and the group completed a successful US tour in May. Unusually for an a capella group, Ora also engages professional stage directors to produce full productions rather than traditional ‘stand and sing’ concerts.

Ora holds a unique place among performing groups, with their recordings and concerts combining both the early music repertoire with contemporary works. This pairing is of special interest as many of the contemporary works are directly  commissioned by Ora through their dedicated composition programme.

By way of a bit of background, Ora was born out of a belief that we are in a second golden age of choral music, matching that of the English Renaissance. In recent years choral composition and performance have become especially popular in the UK, even reaching the more general market level, with successful television programmes such as Last Choir Standing (Ora’s Music Director, Suzi Digby, serving as one of the judges), and The Choir, charting the competition and progress of choral ensembles. Many will also be familiar with A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the Christmas Eve service held in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and broadcast worldwide by the BBC.  As well as the more traditional repertoire, the Service offers modern choral works and, since 1983, a specially-commissioned choral composition is included each year. Yet, along with the growing interest and activity in modern choral music, it is also valuable to look back at the earlier repertoire, regard its legacy and resonance, and consider if inspiration can be found and stylistic relationships created.    

Thus, Ora’s performances and recordings showcase classic choral masterpieces of the English Renaissance, and partner these with modern compositions, many specially written by contemporary composers. The brief is for the composers to contemplate how the early music repertoire—its techniques, styles, and vision—can inspire them as twenty-first century composers. Commissioning these new choral works, and championing contemporary composers, is one of the main goals for Ora. Moreover, in conjunction with its affiliate patron’s group Ora 100 the ensemble is dedicated to the creation of a choral repertoire for current performance and future generations. The commissioned composers range from more established names, such as Francis Pott and Roxanna Panufnik, to the younger generation, including Owain Park (b. 1993) and Charlotte Bray (b. 1982), among others.

As an example of this musical relationship, in their first CD Ora performs Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, and then pairs this with Owain Park’s work, ‘Upheld by Stillness’, noted by the composer as a reflection on the Sanctus and Benedictus of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. Writing in the liner notes Park observes: ‘I was instantly drawn to Kathleen Raine’s ‘The World’, when looking for a text for this reflection. Its themes perfectly corresponded with my idea of Byrd’s Sanctus, being an expansive continually evolving work...Elements of the poem are reflected in this piece as well as melodic lines from Byrd’s original composition, which are often set against a backdrop of shimmering chords.’

In a similar way in the CD, Charlotte Bray offers her composition, Agnus Dei, as ‘a reflection on the Agnus Dei of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices’: ‘The beauty and tranquility of the Agnus Dei in Byrd’s five-part Mass is most striking…A fragment of Byrd’s theme was taken as the starting point for my Agnus Dei. Harmonically, the piece is built on tone clusters, which were constructed from a germ of the harmonic language of the Byrd.’

Additional compositional pairings by contemporary composers, with the works specially commissioned by Ora, include Roxanna Panufnik’s ‘Kyrie After Byrd’—‘a reflection on the Kyrie of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices’; Alexander L’Estrange, ‘Show me, Deare Christ’, a contemplation on the Credo of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices; and Roderick Williams’ ‘Ave Verum Corpus Re-Imagined’, a meditative piece on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.

Ora’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Suzi Digby, OBE, is an internationally renowned choral conductor and music educator who has trail-blazed the revival of singing in UK schools and the community. Digby founded and runs the influential UK national arts/educational organisations: The Voices Foundation (the UK’s leading Primary Music Education Charity); Vocal Futures (nurturing young audiences for classical music); and the London Youth Choir (a pyramid of 5 choirs, 8-22, serving all communities in London’s 33 boroughs). Digby is also a visiting Professor at the University of Southern California (Choral Studies) and in 2014 launched her Californian professional vocal consort, The Golden Bridge.

Digby annually conducts 2,000 voices in the Royal Albert Hall in a scratch Youth Messiah, and on the lighter side of music has provided choirs for the Rolling Stones at the O2, Glastonbury Festival and Hyde Park, amongst other venues worldwide.

I hope Ora’s vision and music, along with their active composition commissioning programme, will be of interest to AMS colleagues, and to a wide range of listeners, including scholars, enthusiasts, performers, and composers.

Victoria Cooper is Founder and Director of Cooper Digital Publishing Ltd, established to create ebooks, apps, and digital products in the areas of culture, media, and healthcare. Most recently, Cooper Digital Publishing collaborated with InkPix Media and film company Ink Factory to create the interactive iBook, The Night Manager: Insider’s Guide, on Apple iTunes for the BBC and film company AMC, to accompany the very successful television series The Night Manager.
Formerly Senior Commissioning Editor of music and theatre books at Cambridge University Press, Cooper has written widely on the publishing industry and publishing history. She is on the Board of Trustees of the professional choral group Ora, Board of Trustees of the charity performing arts organisation, Vocal Futures, and Member of Council for the Handel Institute.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Magical Substance Flows Into Me: Recording the Limits of Public Musicology

by Michael Figueroa

It isn’t often that musicology serves as a topic for feature-length films, but the artist Jumana Manna has turned her camera toward the research of Robert Lachmann in A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (66 min.; released September 2015 in the UK; not yet released in the US). The film is not a biopic but rather a documentary about the “double bind or dual potentiality of music”: its ability to affirm collective identity while excluding others. The title is a reference to a chapter in anthropologist Michael Taussig’s What Color is the Sacred? (2009), entitled “A Beautiful Blue Substance Flows into Me.” Manna finds the appropriation of Taussig’s visual metaphor compelling for the study of music, as she stated in a September 2015 interview:
Both color and sound move through time, and are similarly at once authentic and deceitful. They are mediums that connect to the vibratory quality of being, and mediums that encounter us, in a way that doesn’t always give us the possibility to control their entry into our bodies and our psyche.
The film opens with a crackling recording of Lachmann speaking at a December 1936 meeting of the Advisory Committee for the Palestine Broadcasting Service, established earlier that year by the British Mandate (the first transmission was on March 30). Over a blank screen, he delivers an indignant response to recent attacks to his musical programs by the local Hebrew and Arabic presses. At the end of the clip, he states, “I would ask you now to give me your most valuable advice as to possible changes in our programs and our method. It goes without saying that I cannot promise to accept your advice.” In fact, Lachmann would largely ignore his listening public’s feedback and persist in the broadcasting project according to his own mission to defy the onward march of modernity by salvaging oral traditions.

Lachmann (1892–1939) is an interesting case in the history of public (ethno)musicology, because—like Musicology Now—his research interfaced with the public using a relatively recent form of mass communication. While the blog may still be a relatively new medium, for Lachmann it was radio broadcasting that promised to offer new possibilities. After immigrating to Palestine in 1935 in flight from Nazi Germany, where he had been dismissed from his Music Librarian post at the Berlin Staatsbibliothek for being Jewish, he worked toward institutionalizing an Archive of Oriental Music at the Hebrew University, in a tale of academic intrigue and frustration dramatically chronicled by Ruth Katz in “The Lachmann Problem” (2003). When the PBS began broadcasting in 1936, Lachmann seized the opportunity to educate the European Jewish elites of Palestine in the music of its domestic Others, with an explicit agenda of creating political harmony between the region’s various constituencies. In his first lecture on November 18, 1936, he stated:
For the European, here [Palestine], it is of vital interest to know the mind of his Oriental neighbor; well, music and singing, as being the most spontaneous outcome of it, will be his surest guide provided he listens to it with sympathy instead of disdain.
His radio programs, running from November 1936 through April 1937, each featured a lecture on an Oriental musical tradition with performances by local musicians.

In her film, Jumana Manna travels around Jerusalem and other areas of Israel/Palestine to interview members of the ethnic communities with whom Lachmann worked in the 1930s. Some of the scenes begin with Manna reading from Lachmann’s handwritten lecture notes to reveal his Orientalizing rationale; this is coupled with footage of Manna’s own parents interacting with each other in their Jerusalem apartment—a metaphor for the conflicting ideological discourses about home and ownership in the region.

Manna embeds Lachmann’s scholarly project in the 21st-century political context by repatriating it in a manner that is paradoxically ephemeral yet newly archived by virtue of its capture on film: She uses her smart phone, a consistent prop throughout the film, to play the original broadcasted performances for her interview subjects. In a striking, unscripted moment, the voice turns out to belong the father of one of Manna’s Samaritan interview subjects—a father whom the woman is encountering for the first time through this recording.

Perhaps the highlights of the film occur where Manna asks the musicians she interviews to perform for the camera. The Moroccan-Israeli singer Neta Elkayam, accompanied by Amit Hai on banjo (an untraditional choice of instrument that surely would make Lachmann turn in his grave), performs traditional songs in her kitchen while cooking a tagine and speaking about the burden of having to negate her Moroccan-Arab roots in order to assimilate to a Zionist ideal enforced through education and social pressures. “Home” for her grandmother was the “Morocco” inside the four walls of her Israeli house. The closing scene of the film features a group of Palestinian musicians playing a raucous dabke, “cAla dal’una,” a song also presented during Lachmann’s final radio lecture. As a love song meant for social dancing at a wedding, it serves as a powerfil affirmation of community, and in another beautiful unscripted moment, a blind elderly man enters the house to join in the dancing as if “the vibratory quality of being” and loss of control described by Manna could be instantiated with just a little music.

In her Director’s Statement, Manna refers to Lachmann’s project as a “failure,” because “his study of the Oriental Jews along-side Palestinians did not create a greater understanding between the concerned communities.” She frames the film as “the present giving advice to the past,” imploring the ghost of Lachmann to finally embrace “how the traditions are influencing and forming to one another.” Herein lies a potential crisis for public musicology: Are we responsible for solving the conflicts in which we work? Can our work even have small effects on politics, discourse, social relations, etc.? This line of questioning is not meant to be rhetorical or defeatist; as someone researching music in Israel/Palestine, these issues often crop up in my field interviews, interactions with colleagues, and even the writing process.

Although I have no illusions that my scholarship will “save the world,” I still think there is something to Manna’s critique that might bear out in methodological and representational considerations. Her film, according to the director’s statement, “renders visible the complex inter-dependency of identities that were falsely made discrete from one another” by the political ideology of pre-1948 Zionism. If it indeed accomplishes this goal, it does so by showing a series of intimate musical encounters that evince processes of exchange, or at least affinity, between communities that are often framed as enemies. To be sure, this isn’t a programmatic attempt to put musicians from clashing cultures in the same room, such as in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (discussed here and here by Rachel Beckles Willson), projects discussed in Benjamin Brinner’s recent monograph, or even the Silk Road Ensemble (which, as it happens, is the subject of its own upcoming documentary film). Instead, Manna’s work allows the private sphere of musical experience to displace the public rhetoric of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—at least during the moment of viewing—and allows the people living through it to have the strongest voice. The “magical substance” of music becomes not so much a romanticization of its “healing” powers but rather a profound recognition that conflict is something felt, experienced, and performed. Perhaps this is the wisdom Manna offers not only to Lachmann, but to those of us practicing musicology in the present; herein lies not a limit to but rather an affirmation of the potential and value of our work—the work we specifically are equipped to do—to both the public and the humanities at-large.

Michael A. Figueroa is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches Middle Eastern and African American music. His current book project focuses on music and territorial conflict in Jerusalem and greater Israel/Palestine.

 For more information on the film: Official Web Site:

 Jumana Manna is a Palestinian artist working primarily with film and sculpture. Her work explores how power is articulated through relationships, often focusing on the body and materiality in relation to narratives of nationalism, and histories of place. Manna received a BFA from the National Academy of Arts in Oslo (KHiO), and an MA in Aesthetics and Politics from California Institute of the Arts. In 2012, she was awarded the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Palestinian Artist Award (first prize). She has participated in various international exhibitions, biennials and film festivals.

Further reading on Lachmann:
Davis, Ruth F. 2010. “Ethnomusicology and Political Ideology in Mandatory Palestine: Robert Lachmann’s ‘Oriental Music’ Projects.  Music & Politics 4:2.
Katz, Ruth. 2003. “The Lachmann Problem”: An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.

Lachmann, Robert. 2013. The Oriental Music Broadcasts: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine. Edited by Ruth F. Davis. Madison, WI: A-R Editions.