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Friday, November 18, 2016

On the 'Added Value' of Music

I was at a conference where numerous projects were presented in the domain of 'Arts and the Elderly'. It was good to notice that, where ten years ago activities in this domain were hardly visible and actors hardly met, now this domain has constituted itself as an actual domain with actual key questions and a growing network of people who know how to find each other and appreciate each other.

One of the key questions, a persistent and recurring one, is that of advocacy for and, ultimately, of financing of activities for frail and vulnerable elderly: those with dementia, those in hospitals or in care homes, those living a lonely life at home devoid of meaningful social contacts, et cetera.

The communis opinio is that the arts may contribute to physical and mental health, and to a general sense of well-being and meaningfulness of life. There are many strong examples to show that, and research is carried out both to give 'deep' evidence (through, e.g. ethnography, case studies or action research) as well as 'broad' evidence (through larger scale but more superficial effect measurements). And slowly but surely the knowledge of what the arts contribute to the elderly is building up.

But in the back of my head there is this persisting and recurring question of my own: why do we, suddenly, in the case of the vulnerable older woman, have to explain something that was taken for granted when that same woman was not yet vulnerable and older but just simply living her everyday life. When it comes to music: why do we have to argue that there is something missing in the life of this vulnerable older woman if music has no place in it in the same way as it did before? And why do we have to deliver the 'evidence-base' for the simple, widely accepted notion underpinned by libraries of research that human beings are learning beings, and that therefore life is incomplete without the possibility to be surprised by new music, new images, new movements, and that even the very vulnerable should be given the opportunities to living by learning?

I was in a session on the said conference where we were making an inventory of 'the value of the arts', and where we were talking in terms of 'added value': the arts give you the opportunity to express yourself, to bond socially, et cetera. But the idea of 'added value' gives one the idea that the arts are not part of the basis of life, but form an 'extra' in order to reach specific 'goals'. That may be the case in for example the therapeutic use of the arts, but even arts therapy nowadays is firmly grounded in the idea that it works precisely because the arts are nót an extra in life, but rather an undeniable part of life.

Speaking for music - the only 'art' of which I really know something - I would like to draw your attention to the fact that 99,9% of our population leads an intense and deeply satisfying - and very idio-syncratic, and often not very 'canonical' - musical life on a day-to-day basis. If at an elderly age people get less and less opportunities to continue their musical life, it is very simply part of a human health care system to provide those opportunities. The questions may be who should be doing that (contrary to popular belief in my circles I do not see why 'music professionals' should suddenly take the lead here), how we organize it, and who pays for it.

But the fundamental position should be: music is not an added value. It is a basic value. Music for elderly people should not be judged on the basis of the fact that it is 'fostering well-being', or on any other kind of 'added value' of music. It should be judged on the basis of the fact that human life by definition is musical, and that living the full life till the end means also living the musical life till the end. And if a care system is a 'care' system at all: simply taking care that that happens.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Long live the Italians - but no.

I had a long blog break. A long, long blog break. But I was nearly back writing, if not for our Italian friends.

The break was not due to a holiday. Oh yes, I had one; we went to a Foreign Country, I renovated a room of one of the kids, put together at least 10 IKEA bookcases, built a sort of play house for the kids in the garden (it looks more like a hunting lodge to shoot at the neighbors), swam in a lake, hurt my foot, read books (Michel de Certeau, Bruno Latour, Gert Biesta, T.C. Boyle, books on the death of Yugoslavia), and what not.

And hardly wrote blog entries.

I wrote other stuff, of course. The not-blog-writing-period started way before the holidays and lasted until way after the holidays, and as my working life consists of talking, listening, reading and writing, I wrote articles, grant requests, research field notes, memoranda and addenda, bibliographies, little pieces about the history of shanty singing, and much more.

But no blog entries.

Maybe, I thought, I had grown tired of words. Maybe I had lost inspiration and suffered from writer's block. Maybe the world simply had changed, and nothing happened that required a blog entry to be dealt with. I mean, I could write about reading De Certeau or getting stuck in Latour; or about the way Bob Dylan's album 'New Morning' coloured my stay in the Foreign Country. But somehow, it didn't feel right.

But then the Italians nearly got me back to writing. I read in a news item that they give every kid turning 18 500 euros to be spent on culture. Or rather: on Culture. There seems to be a list made by the Italian Ministry of Culture, containing the Culture one can choose from. Italian Culture - because, as the government has stated, that is good for personal development and societal coherence. And it is an anti-dote against the terrorist attacks of IS. The Dutch corespondent in Italy added in his news item that the 500 euros could probablyy not be spent on Justin Bieber concerts, because Bieber would most likely not be on the list.

For a moment I thought this might be something to write about - the combination of astonishment and irritation is probably the greatest catalyst for writing any blog entry. But when the Bieber-stuff came up at the end of the news item, astonishment as well as irritation seeped away. Sometimes reality is so boringly and outrageously stupid that one can do nothing else but loose all interest.

Sorry, my Italian friends. Sorry, Justin. I am sure the world will soon be interesting enough again to write about. But there apparently are limits to what one can write about, limits beyond which all writing becomes useless.

As Wittgenstein said: "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen". And indeed, it feels like 'muss', not 'soll'.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Kanye West, a guy called Uwe Diegel, and a sickening confusion of categories

I was checking out one of the social media last night and some-one I respect posted this:

Uwe Diegel is chief-executive of a medical firm. He also has a past as a classical concert pianist.

So let us get the equation right: the music world may be compared to the Muslim world. And in that case, it is okay to compare Kanye West to a terrorist.

I checked out Kanye West on Wikipedia because I don't know much about him and maybe I overlooked a recent atrocity. I also checked some other sites on news about him. Found nothing to be deeply anxious about. Yes, the usual Famous American rubbish; little scandals, bigger scandals, cross-libelling, et cetera. Nothing to be too shocked about if you follow the show bizz from the side lines.

I cannot draw any other conclusion: it is okay for Diegel to compare Kanye West to a muslim terrorist because West makes music Diegel dislikes. (And, maybe: because Music, to Diegel, is Religion.)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Special Needs

I think I told this story before: I once told a group of music education students about my developing ideas about 'idiocultural music education', a form of music education that acknowledges the musical individuality of every child and takes that as its point of departure. (Many people say: "Oh, I do that all the time. What's new?" I take the liberty to doubt that - true idiocultural music education is a severe paradigm shift once you think it through. And, I would like to add for those interested, it has something to do with Gert Biesta's idea of 'subjectivation' as one of the three functions of education.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

An embarrassingly auto-ethnographical piece of writing

Although it is rainy and windy now and one would not say it is late spring, only a couple of days ago the weather made us believe it was summer. One afternoon, I was cycling home after a quite busy day. I was good-humored, due to the fact that the last meeting I attended showed signs of improvement in a field which had given rise to worries and even conflicts in the past year.

These days I often listen to music while biking to my work and back. I put some fifty or so albums I like on my phone and listen over those small earphones which deliver a quality which never stops amazing me. Occasionally I listen to Soundcloud - I subscribed to a couple of channels of EDM-artists just to keep an idea of what is going on in the world of my son, musically: Skrillex, David Guetta.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The M4 Principle

This is a little note about the M4 Principle: the Miraculous Meaningfulness of Musical 'Mediocracy'.

I was in Sarajevo last week, as I have been every year those past few years to deliver guest lectures to master and PhD students. I was, to be honest, not looking forward to go, because I have been too busy lately to enjoy travel and I did not want to leave my family. But of course, once I was there I was happy to be back, meeting my Sarajevan colleagues who have become very dear to me over the years, working with those nice students, and wandering around this beautiful city, scarred by history and teeming with life. The smokey smell of Cevabcici-fires. The beautiful mosques, the guilty mountains. Bosnian coffee.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Little Anthem for an Anthem

On Saturday afternoon I went with my shanty choir to a residential home for the elderly in Slochteren, to sing for the inhabitants. The home, 'Olderloug', was well known terrain - we had sung there before, for an audience of (very) old people, some care staff, quite some volunteers, and maybe some inhabitants from the neighborhood.

The days are long gone that in the Netherlands you could enter a residential home for the elderly at retirement age and live there for a couple of decades. Nowadays, one has to be really fragile in order to enter a residential home. If you are only a bit fragile, or rather fragile but not enough to convince the authorities that you need care in a residential home, the powers that be claim that 'family', 'friends', and 'the community' ought to take care of older people, rather than 'the government' (forgetting that 'the government' is nothing else than 'the community' but then institutionalized through tax-paying mechanisms).

I am not going to enter into discussions about today's claims that our society should be 'inclusive' and directed towards 'participation', although, to speak with Dylan, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" - just looking around you is enough to separate the high-strung idealistic and political correct language from the sometimes grey reality unfolding. I am just noticing here that one of the consequences of all this newspeak is that more and more residential homes have to close down because of a lack of inhabitants (basically: because of a lack of money, or rather: because of a lack of willingness to keep investing - the system simply becomes too expensive to be sustained by this poor country I live in).

And so the concert we were giving in Olderloug would be the last concert ever there, because next week Olderloug would be closed down and the remaining inhabitants would be moved to various homes elsewhere in the province - to be, after a while, probably moved to yet another home somewhere else in the province because more homes will be closed down. Et cetera.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Contemporary Octogenarion

Not so long ago, a cherished colleague tweeted that he found it nice to see how new music education projects tried to connect to today's music practices.

Of course, I would find that nice, too.

The funny thing was that he was talking about an initiative where pupils from primary schools were given the opportunity to learn to play the electrical guitar in groups. And then my thoughts started to wander.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Humanly Organized Sound?

Recently I was in an international meeting on music education. Many concrete music education practices were shown. One of them started from a definition of music which ethnomusicologists immediately recognize: John Blacking's famous "Music is humanly organized sound".

Although I am an ethnomusicologist and I admire John Blacking (at least the relatively little I know of him), I am not at all a fan of this definition. At a first glance, it looks rather harmless. It is nice that the word 'human' is there. But I don't like he stress on 'sound' - it points too much to the idea that the essence of music is the way it sounds, and it is only a short run then towards the idea that music is, essentially, a 'piece' of sound. I also don't like the stress on 'organized', as it turns our focus towards they-that-organize: composers and musicians. And I miss, for example, the word 'meaning'; meaning is what music is all about.

It is good to remember that defining is not an innocent, neutral or objective activity, and that a definition is not an objective fact or a representation of an abstract truth. Defining is a human act, and an individual act for that: somebody defines. Defining means: stating which of the innumerable characteristics of a phenomenon one considers characteristic of the phenomenon. It is choosing a specific focus on the world, and ignoring other possible focuses. And it is marking boundaries; it is an act of inclusion and of exclusion.

It is maybe good to realize that John Blacking was, apart from being an anthropologist focusing on music, also an accomplished classical pianist who for a time had the ambition of becoming a professional concert pianist. Maybe this background and the doubtless emotionally grounded importance of being a classical pianist shimmers through his definition of music. Mind you: I know that John Blacking is the opposite of the classical musician considering classical music the alpha and omega of music in general, and that his work amongst the Venda in South-Africa made him realize that nearly all his presuppositions about what music might be had become untenable. I am not accusing him of implicit musicological colonialism; I just want to suggest that maybe our own experiences with music are so fundamental that it is hard to detach us from them.

The main thing I want to say is: when people start defining music, be cautious. So here is my own definition of music, to be equally cautious of: "music" is what someone considers to be 'music'.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Are DJs Musicians?

Earlier I wrote about the question whether or not singers are musicians. The question is as pressing as ever - again and again I find snippets of language in daily life in which speakers equate 'music' with 'music played on an instrument'. Please understand me right: this is not 'wrong' - it is simply 'culture'; it is the way we ('we') think and speak about music. I guess the fact that Mischa Spel (about whom I wrote in my previous blog) is announced to write for her newspaper about 'classical music and opera' is connected to the same question. And the fact that the particular blog entry called "Are Singers Musicians" is the entry that has attracted the most readers of all 150+ entries of this my blog may show that the question makes people curious (or maybe it shows that there are many singers around longing for a positive answer?).

I can tell you that there is a related question: are DJs musicians? Again, the question revolves about ideas whether or not they produce sounds in the way instrumentalists do - "with their own bare hands", one might say. We are so used thinking in terms of the production of sound vs. the reproduction of sounds that it seems unthinkable that somebody 'just' reproducing music produced by others is a musician. And of course, while typing the sentence, I realize that for example classical musicians do precisely that: in their production they reproduce.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Erik Scherder, Mischa Spel, and why the New Lobby for Music Education desperately needs some opposition

Interesting times for music education in the Netherlands. A New Lobby for Music Education seems to be forming. It consists of journalists, researchers, opinion leaders, performing musicians, culture hotshots. They (claim they) base themselves on research showing why music is important in education. And they equate 'music' with 'playing an instrument', and 'music education' with 'learning to play an instrument'.

A possible - and rather black - interpretation of this New Lobby could be the one in which the argument runs thus: the guild of professional performing musicians, traditionally mainly classical musicians but today also jazz and even pop, were mainly found in government-sponsored orchestras and ensembles, they performed on government-sponsored stages and taught music lessons in government-sponsored music schools. Now that the gusto in governmental circles to keep on sponsoring seems to diminish, professional performing musicians and the enormous fringe of organisational professionals around them look into other governemnt-sponsored areas where they might work, and have cast their eye on schools. Hence the attention for the benefits of 'music' (read: playing an instrument) for 'the brain', 'creativity', and 'social skills' (all very important in educational discourse these days). And hence the call for money for music education, and for specialists in the classroom; a call with the mixed origins of wanting the best for our kids and wanting to secure work for professional musicians.