Ethnomusicology of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East: Structures of Music, Structures of Power

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses

Ethnomusicology has intellectual roots extending back to the Enlightenment and earlier, but it is often described as emerging from the mid- to late-19th century. This period, notable for analytic empiricism as well as aggressive imperialism and colonialism, left a strong imprint on the discipline of ethnomusicology. Taking this imprint into account, this course will carefully consider the connections between the ways a culture’s music is organized and the ways its society is structured. During the first semester, we will explicitly juxtapose social structure with sound structure, asking how musical patterns can be associated with other human behaviors that surround, create, and control them. We’ll examine musical patterns that have emerged from within a given culture, as well as ones that have resulted from powerful social forces imposed from without. A powerful case in point is Sarah Lawrence’s own Balinese gamelan, Chandra Buahna. Participation in this bronze percussion orchestra is a required part of the fall semester, and no musical experience is necessary. During the second semester, we will examine many forms of music across East Asia, India, and the Middle East, determining how they work as pieces of sonic art. Further, we’ll consider the changing significance of musics that have been “relocated,” whether through migration and diaspora or through sampling and media circulation. We will get to know a wide range of musical examples in great detail, including (but not limited to) works of South Indian kriti, North Indian raga, Indonesian gamelan, Iranian radif, Arabic maqam, and West African percussion. While these musical styles are sophisticated and challenging, prior experience with “music theory” is absolutely not required for this course. This course may also be taken as a yearlong component.