Saturday, May 7, 2011

Necessary Evils? Throatsinging Remixes and Shamu

A part of being a band director is organizing and executing the annual field trip.  I usually refer to it as “the carrot,” because all year long, we dangle this event in front of the students to keep them motivated and participating when morale is low.  Although there is usually a band festival involved where the students participate in a judged performance, it is the express goal of the students to reap the benefits of a year’s worth of hard work and dedication and just have fun as a group.  This went down yesterday when the band went to Sea World in San Antonio.  The whole thing came off pretty well - nobody did anything too dumb (at least that I knew about) and we got everywhere we needed to be within a fifteen minute margin of error.

As we rode to San Antonio, I was finally taking the opportunity to finish Theodore Levin’s book Where Rivers and Mountains Sing.  The final chapter addressed the regularity with which Tuvan musicians are invited to engage in cross-cultural encounters.  In one such encounter, the group Huun-Huur-Tu actually gained a huge amount of visibility and popularity in Greece when a traditional Tuvan song was remixed by a group called Malerija.

The resulting unexpected popularity for this track apparently caused Huun-Huur-Tu's brief, low-key tour to become a consistent sell-out event with enthusiastic responses – sometimes even mobs!  Despite the visibility that this recording brought them, however, the group's members remained ambivalent about the actual aesthetic value of the remix itself, but they did feel that it was a positive thing because it served to raise public awareness of Tuvan music, if in a general way.  The end, as they say, justified the means. 

I will admit to being a little conflicted: the part of me that kind of likes the remix is the same part that listened to early 90s music appropriators Enigma, whose 1991 release MCMCX AD brought Gregorian Chant into the American popular music sphere.

That same part of grew to like chant on its own basis, though, and although today I still appreciate Enigma’s brash creativity, the end result seems at least a little corny, if not presumptuous.  To me, the remix of Love Ride seems similarly hackneyed because I have some familiarity and connection with the source material.  Still, both Enigma and Malerija are overall much more engaging than the soulless drivel that is pumped through the speakers all over Sea World.  I escaped that ordeal by checking out the Beastie Boys’ new album The Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 on headphones, an experience I will recount on a later post.

Keeping the tension between Tuvan traditionalism and contemporary studio practices in mind, I noticed that I also have bit of cognitive dissonance with Sea World in a way that extends beyond the musical environment they create.  Sea World San Antonio is primarily a large-scale interactive aquatic zoo.  Their shows feature various animals as "actors" and my cynical side constantly grapples with the morality of exploiting such amazing creatures in this way.  When I watched the killer whale show, I found the melodramatic presentation ridiculously inadequate as these astonishing behemoths did tricks for the crowd’s benefit.

It was hard to ignore, however, the enthusiasm of the audience’s younger contingent.  As hundreds of kids chanted “Shamu” over and over again to be gleefully soaked by the animal’s immense splashing, I had to wonder if any of them would one day become marine biologists because of this highly visceral close encounter.  Perhaps Sea World’s shows raise awareness in a way that allows the ends, again, to justify the means.

It’s beyond the scope of a mere blog post to decide whether this perpetual motion machine of appropriation, exploitation, education, and justification within which we seem to function, both musically and educationally, is inherently good or bad.  I certainly would question my authority on such matters.  Despite my reservations, though, I acknowledge the role that I played in this paradigm by bringing the band to the park.  My underlying agenda is to get the students to develop their own musical voice and appreciate the place it has in a world of sound.  I genuinely believe, however, that the students deserved a chance to cultivate a feeling of solidarity so that their continued interest allows them to one day see that the opportunity to enjoy music with their peers was the real goal.  In this particular case, I think, the end does justify the means. 

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