by Colette Simonot-Maiello ¦ March 30 2017
Every week, I look forward to a new installment of The Omnivorous Listener so I can read about what my friends and colleagues have to say about their own listening. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people who have careers in music might listen differently than others. I’ve also wondered if, for example, a performer listens differently than a music theorist, or if a percussionist listens differently than a singer. Closer to my own experience, I also wonder how a musicologist is supposed to listen? Of course, listening is an individual practice and there is no right answer, but I used to muse on listening endlessly in grad school. For a long time, I admired the “serious collector” listener and wished I numbered among their ranks. These are the listeners who probably scour Gramophone and make a point of acquiring the most compelling recordings of every canonic piece of classical music (or popular music) ever composed. This listening practice does not suit me, maybe because my music background and training is so varied. My research focuses primarily on music from 1900 onward and I don’t limit myself to the classical genre. I also pay attention to music we might hear in everyday life outside a concert venue or an opera house. While the bulk of my graduate studies focused on historical musicology, I do have a Masters degree in ethnomusicology and enough teaching and research experience in popular music to at least be on the periphery of those subdisciplines. Since I’m interested in such a wide variety of musics and it’s simply impossible to keep track of everything, I don’t separate my listening practice into listening for work and for fun, or even for teaching purposes or for research. Everything I listen to typically intersects those categories.
My background is not really that unusual, but academia encourages boundaries between classical, popular, and world musics, assuming that these distinct traditions each require different approaches, which is of course true, but only to a point. The biggest benefit to sequestering genres in an academic environment is that it makes more pedagogical sense, which is why I keep a chronological survey of Western Art Music for the first year students. The problem with this model, as I see it, and as this blog bears out, is that in our globalized 21st century world, the same audience often listens to different musics and these musics often intersect each other and borrow from one another. Mash-ups provide some really compelling examples: the other day I came across a mash-up of Ariana Grande’s Side to Side ft. Nicki Minaj with Jean-Baptiste Lully’s music via scenes from the movie, Le roi danse. Mash-ups that involve both music and video can be particularly clever and my head was reeling as the video shifted back and forth between images of Ariana Grande’s spin class music video and King Louis XIV dancing the ballet in his gold-encrusted costume.
More and more, I’ve been developing courses that acknowledge the co-mingling of different types of musics. The music that catches my interest most strongly these days is music that presents completely unexpected juxtapositions, whether the juxtaposition brings together music from different categories like classical music and world music or maybe two different popular music genres or any other unexpected link. I’ll discuss a few examples that have really got me thinking recently.
I first discovered this group from a link that a friend and fellow musicologist posted on Facebook a few years ago. Babymetal is a Japanese group that juxtaposes two popular music genres: metal (more specifically, speed metal, power metal, black metal, industrial metal, and possibly other metal subgenres, depending on who you ask) and pop (more specifically, J-pop). There is a lot of discussion of genre around this group; if you just google “Babymetal,” you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes Babymetal is defined as part of the genre of “kawaii metal,” which means cute metal, but it’s also “idol metal” because the group was constructed in part by a record executive who recruited and auditioned young teenage girls as singers.
So what does it sound like? I find Babymetal’s music instantly appealing because it features the powerful instrumental metal sound softened by light, sugary sweet vocals. Kind of a musical version of that perfect salty and sweet snack. The lyrics tend to be fairly light (some might say trite or insipid), but often with a hint of seriousness. For example, “Gimme Chocolate,” refers to body expectations of young girls, hidden among the repetitions of the title. The lyrics are primarily Japanese with some English mixed in.
The other reason I like this music is that it gives me a lot to think about, which also makes it a great case study, especially for a class on music and gender. On the one hand, you have expert instrumental performers, all adult males, dressed in metal-themed costumes (like warriors, for example). Hyper-masculinity at its finest. On the other hand, you have three girls who sing and perform highly-choreographed dance moves while dressed in black and red punk Lolita costumes. Hyper-femininity at its finest? Some might argue that these girls are making inroads in metal just because they are part of this typically masculine genre, but Lita Ford they are not. Others might be offended that these girls, presented in a slightly sexualized manner, are more evidence of the problematic infantilization of women. Then again, there is also the cultural divide that we North Americans have to consider when talking about Babymetal—kawaii (“cuteness”) culture. Remember, the same culture that created Babymetal created “Hello Kitty.”
Low German Christian Rap
A few months ago, I started watching Pure, a new series on CBC about an Old World Mennonite community in Ontario that develops connections with the Menno Mob and drug trafficking. Unexpected juxtapositions are everywhere you look. When you search for the show on the CBC website, you end up at a page with a graphic of a horse and buggy driven by a conservatively-dressed couple followed by a police cruiser. Up in the right-hand corner is the title of the series, “Pure,” in white letters. Upon closer inspection, you realize that the letters are made to look like someone has traced them out in cocaine. “Pure” no doubt has a double meaning, referring to both the closed religious society with traditional values (moral purity?) and the quality of the drugs they traffic. I was drawn to this program partly because of those unexpected juxtapositions and partly because here in Manitoba, I live amongst a large group of Mennonites. While I don’t know much about the Mennonite community, I am savvy enough to know that Pure only represents one type of Mennonite, and the show has been criticized for being pretty unrealistic and inaccurate, but with a grain of truth. This looks like a good place to learn more about that issue.
At any rate, the show reminds me a bit of the first season of Breaking Bad, and the juxtaposition of a devout Christian community with the violence and greed of the drug trade is pretty shocking. Why am I writing about a television show on a blog about listening? At the end of the first episode, while trying to digest the show I just viewed, I heard this haunting sound while the credits were rolling: Low German rap. I haven’t heard that much Low German, so to me, it has an Old World feel and I tend to associate it with religious music, mostly hymns. I don’t generally think of rap in connection with religious or Old World communities, so the combination was new to me. It took a few episodes to find out what the piece is (it appears at the end of nearly every episode): it’s called “Himmel oda Hall (Heaven or Hell)” by Jamie Olfert (aka Discypo).
Of course I googled “Low German music” and discovered an entirely new (to me) movement of young Low German-speakers making music in a variety of genres. That’s a Ph.D. dissertation waiting to be written.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending Taken, a concert curated by composer Andrew Balfour, artistic director of Camerata Nova. Balfour has been making a name for himself in Manitoba by creating innovative performances that mix and match genres focused around Aboriginal themes. Just to give you an idea, Camerata Nova is a choir that sings everything from Renaissance polyphony to the most modern of contemporary works. In Taken, they collaborated with a number of different Aboriginal artists. One was Jeremy Dutcher, a young, operatically-trained Maliseet singer. He has tasked himself with reviving his culture’s music and has undertaken a project to discover and record old Maliseet songs (you can read about his project and listen to some of his music here). Hip hop artist Lindsay Knight (aka Eekwol) rapped about the “taken” theme over Camerata Nova’s choral live beat, developed by Mel Braun. For one of Eekwol’s pieces, Braun wove 13 Canadian pop songs into the texture of the live beat. Madeleine Allakariallak is an Inuit singer who performed one of the main roles in the feature piece that evening, Qamaniq (Bright Aura), that loosely tells the story of explorer Martin Frobisher, who brought Inuit people back to England to show as “curiosities.” Clearly, Camerata Nova’s Taken performance featured a number of unexpected juxtapositions, most of which crossed cultural and genre divides.
I can’t end this post without mentioning A Tribe Called Red, another great example of Aboriginal new music that relies on juxtapositions. Typically, A Tribe Called Red remixes powwow songs to create electronic dance music, creating in the process a new genre that might be called Electric Pow Wow, or Powwow Dubstep. Clearly, the group is sending a multi-layered message (and probably an uncomfortable one for its non-Aboriginal listeners) by creating something new with older materials. I recently read a great article that examines the different elements of some of A Tribe Called Red’s pieces: Alexa Woloshyn’s “Hearing Urban Indigeneity in Canada.” Woloshyn talks in great detail about A Tribe Called Red’s music, one of which I’ll mention here, “Red Skin Girl.” This track is a remix of the Northern Cree Singers’ round dance of the same name.
A Tribe Called Red’s version is here:
Incidentally, Woloshyn’s article doesn’t address A Tribe Called Red’s official video in any great detail, and I think they’ve embedded another layer of discourse there. Essentially, in a similar way that the group remixes a powwow song into a powwow dubstep, they also remix what looks like Aboriginal-themed clips from various movies to make their video. The only one that’s obvious to me is Night at the Museum. Can anyone identify any others? Let me know in the comments section!