Monday, April 26, 2010

Critical Review #10 Novak 2010

Novak's article does a good job in demonstrating remediation through tracing "Jan Pehechan Ho" from its original context to isolated context to the Heavenly Ten Stems to Ghost World. I didn't know anything about the song, the band, or the movie, so in learning about them, I thought it would be a stretch to link these three examples together. Nevertheless, Ghost World's super-reflexivity on "nostalgia" was a very meaningful end to the analytical trajectory.

Remediation just sounds like a fancy term for how people interpret the art around them to make art of their own. I suppose it has its specific uses (e.g. graphic novel to movie) or clear, distinct examples ("Jan Pehechan Ho"), but I think its hard to draw the line between what is cultural diffusion and "remediation". I think the example from the movie, where Enid claims something that is "so bad it has gone past good and back to bad" is what draws that line.

The point of this article and the point of Ghost World is to decry the effects when remediation replaces the original idea that gets mediated in the first place. When novelty, kitsch and humor replace what heartfelt meaning (not that one can't profoundly feel kitsch etc.), what is the nature of the "new" remediated product that springs forth from the old ones?

The aesthetic of interruption and disconnect used to describe the disjointed tropes and styles of Bollywood movies lays out fertile ground for this "spontaneous remediation". Remediation born out of no evident connection to the original source. But what is original source anyways?

I found Windy Chien's comment, "If you like a Bollywood song now [in 2008], you have to really like it. It's available--so it's not the exotic mystery... (63)." The article mentioned she owned Aquarius Records in San Francisco, which I have been to a couple of times. I quickly understood Aquarius as this bevy of obscure, imported I-don't-quite-know-what. Cool, but I didn't quite know why or have the money to find out why (it's hard to utilize the global current and torrent/megadownload some Columbian electronica you can't locate on iTunes/amazon etc.). Chien, one of the "protesters" at the Heavenly Ten Stems show, goes on to work for the man--for iTunes--exterminating the kitsch and novelty which seem to make a place like Aquarius Records--and the obsessive collectors in Ghost World--thrive.

Critical Review #9 Feld 2000

Feld has a good example in "Rorogwela"--Deep Forests hijacking of the song comes off as objectively wretched and artistically perverse. The example does raise some important questions about artistic influence, copyright, and global copyright.

In Feld's conclusion, he states that it is unclear if Afunakwa had ever heard the Deep Forest song or its derivative versions and "Pygmy Lullaby". This makes "Sweet Lullaby's" multilocal histories and controversy one that really escaped the original source of the tune entirely and the controversy is one of "our" own making. With the Deep Forest recording especially, it seems as if their grasp of the song was utterly dislocated and disconnected--locally schizophonic--from the source at the Solomon Islands that I'm not sure whether it matters where they got that tune from or not. It is clear Deep Forest isn't concerned about their source and their listeners aren't either--it's only ethnomusicologist types who know the original field recordings. This is cynical, but in this instance, does it matter how flagrantly they used it? Maybe less so than how they incorrectly cited it as a Central African folk lullaby.

The questions Feld was raising about the "Sweet Lullaby"--one of rights, authenticity and copyright--could maybe have been brought up with an example where the power dynamics weren't so irrevocably on the side of the Westerners (Deep Forest). Mining ethnomusicological field recordings for pop-song sample content seems more a question of obtaining artistic clout via obscurity (an extended "nostalgia" for other music, perhaps).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Critical Review #8 Feld and Meintjes 1990

The discussion in these two articles of Paul Simon's Graceland cover a lot of ground. Meintjes delves into more discussion than the Feld, but, as with Buena Vista Social Club, it's important to know as much background information on this record as possible. I'm finding it hard to make this a critical review about the Feld and Meintjes articles because I mostly want to leap from their discussion on Graceland into my own.

One of the highlights from the Meintjes article is the part on how Graceland includes a hodgepodge of African elements. This "stylistic integration" ranges from a blending of languages, as well as the album's cover art, which features an "Ethiopian effigy" when no other Ethiopian influence is present. This suggests an album that is not wholly South African, but not pan-African either. The inclusion of Los Lobos on the record made this more confusing for me. Meintjes discusses the political ambiguity of Graceland, but I found it just as aesthetically ambiguous.

From my own experiences from the record, it seems like it's purposefully avoiding any political attachment in the name of music and collaboration. I think I agree with Meintjes that this aesthetic pastiche in the actual product of Graceland disregards the collaborators and contributors in a way that disables their agency and artistic integrity. The process and touring around Graceland seems to more sensitive and interested in the collaborators well-being.

I regard this album not as something representative of Africa or African music, but as a Paul Simon record that he got some African musicians to interpret. The product is and has been, at least for me, unmistakably Paul Simon, and if anything, this wide ranging and vague degrees of collaboration detract from Paul Simon's artistic trajectory as an artist. I think Graceland isn't trying to be some Western artist-guided dialogue or exploration of a musical genre or style (unlike Buena Vista Social Club). Rather, it is a confusedly African tinged piece of pop music.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Challenge Question Cycle

Rebecca's Challenge Question
What do you think constitutes an appropriate motivation to undertake ethnography and what should its ultimate goal be? Consider the following list of reasons one might study a specific group of musicians and contribute additional vantage points as you see fit: personal interest or connection to a subject; filling a gap in academic research; the prestige of the subject being studied; promoting broader understanding, etc... You don't necessarily need to discuss each item on the list, just consider each as you discuss the purposes and goals you see as being most important in conducting ethnography.

Perhaps the question is whether to undertake ethnography as opposed to a less-personalized form of objective study (if there is such a thing). It seems as if the style of ethnomusicological writing we have been reading in class has been highly anthropological and ethnographic--the articles and chapters are typically rooted in a bounded community where the author's own experience constitutes as much of the analysis and narrative as do the experiences of the subject(s). In making a decision begin academic research, one must ask why a particular subject is worth studying as well as whether that subject should be studied using the ethnographic method.

In terms of the "vantage points" provided by the question, I feel that all of those tacts are important components of the answer to "why we study". Of course, personal interest and/or a connection are essential for the researcher to thoroughly undertake a subject so that his or her time will be well spent and enriching intellectually. Filling a gap in academic research is also essential. At Brown, it seems as if much of the anthropological thought concerning ethnography is often to "give a voice to the voiceless". This can be a key point of entry when it comes to selecting a subject, however ethical questions arise: whether ethnographic study intrudes on a particular culture, whether a particular culture should be subjected to the advantages/disadvantages of being "studied", and how power relations dictate the mood being the research and the subject? Broader understanding is an honorable goal, however, once again similar ethical questions arise. How can accurate information and understanding be disseminated when ethnographic writing is constructed by the biased author. Insider/outsider statuses affect the reliability and objective nature of the depiction. The prestige of the subject has, perhaps, some bearing, but I would like to believe that there is something worth knowing about in every person or culture. Prestige can maybe be taken to mean propensity to lend itself towards theoretical or intellectual development. It is this idea that leads into what is the unifying goal for ethnography.

That goal is to demonstrate a framework by which to understand a particular culture and oneself. With music and ethnomusicological writing, it is the music which usually becomes the linchpin for said framework. In all of the articles and chapters that we have read, the take-away points are never about the subject of the article, rather the process by which the article was derived and written or the method through which a particular person, culture, or practice can be understood. There is no simple way to write or depict a people, culture, music etc. plainly, factually, or objectively. Those facts are interesting and essential--for what they are, they broaden our understandings and allow us to develop a more complex and analytical way of thinking about them.

The essential characteristic of ethnography is its narrative nature and author-involvement. Personalizing a research project with ethnographic narrative doesn’t let the framework ascend into generalization on how the world works. The piece is bounded to its actual subjects and its author. With a theoretical goal in mind, however, the researcher/writer of an ethnography can be certain that the his/her subject is rich and interesting enough to provide something beyond a personalized survey, that the research will either fill in or expand academia, and lend an informative (albeit a most-likely hyper self-reflexive) look at a subject for the ends of broadening understanding.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Critical Review #7 Waxer 1994

I think this article does a pretty good job in making its claims. I don't know tons about son, danzon, mambo, or chachacha, and this seems like one of those situations where thorough listening knowledge would have allowed me to feel like she was making a substantiated and legitimate argument. Her large claims of "transculturation" across the American continents and throughout the fast-paced social and technological developments make sense to me, although it's a huge claim to make for a chapter-sized piece of writing.

That being said, I'm left grappling with her framework--"Fernando Ortiz's influential theoretical concept of 'transculturation'"--and how that relates to the formation of a Pan-Latin identity. Waxer's "genealogical" approach to mambo and chachacha invoke a lot of social/economic explanation for the development of music. Although I am sometimes skeptical when I hear these extremely developmental descriptions of how music is cobbled together by international power relations, media constructions, race relations etc., I like how in these descriptions people and places are married to their music.

What I found interesting was the part about chachacha's popularity being attributed to the intimate connection between the dance step and the rhythmic impulse of the music. In these highly anthropological styled ethnomusicology pieces, I like seeing music tangibly related to the cultural trends or behaviors at hand. This analysis values and empowers the music by giving it similar clout to any economic or racial factor. The chachacha is not simply a practice that is reflective of those economic, racial factors etc., but shaped and formed in an aesthetic way out of its practice. With the risk of sounding cliche, I like the power music has in this particular anaylsis.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Research Notes Part 4 (Interview Documentation)

This past Sunday, I interviewed Chris Link (CL in the documentation), Northpointe’s Director of Community and Generosity, along with my main contact for this project thus far, Jordan Plumier (JP), Director of Worship Arts. We met after the service in the Northpointe office, which is in the Lincoln Mall in between the Cinemaworld and the rows of shops. The office was hectic with the “kids” daycare during the service was being dispensed. Additionally, there was a movie starting at noon, so there was plenty of hustle and bustle to take down all of the equipment and paraphernalia that go into making the Sunday service happen. Despite being so busy, Chris and Jordan sat down with me amongst the ruckus for about a half hour to discuss music and Northpointe.

I tried to offer broad questions that would have Chris and Jordan telling me what they wanted me to know. As the interview went on, it might have turned into more of a conversation—I doubt this would get the Jeff Titon award for methodological excellence. Nevertheless, this in-depth interview was pretty typical of the dynamic I’ve experienced doing “research” at Northpointe. As a young church, its leaders were intrigued as to how I found them in the first place and why I have been interested in the church as a subject. Chris and Jordan have been extremely helpful and willing to talk with me and include me in the church. For that I am very thankful. In turn, they have become increasingly reflexive in their thinking, the more discussion we have about the current state of music and the church, and more specifically music at Northpointe. That being said, by the end of our conversation, I felt we were in full-fledged discussion and I pray my questions didn’t become too loaded/leading.

Here’s the majority of the interview, transcribed. My questions are in bold, and Chris and Jordan’s answers below. Happy Easter.

AS: So what exactly do you do at Northpointe?

CL: My official title is director of community and generosity and so I have all of the responsibility and leadership over community groups—which is our small group structure—and anything that we do generously in the community. We believe Christ has called us to be generous to our neighbors as well as our community and the world, and I lead those three initiatives. So those are my two official titles, but I’m kind of the fill in the gaps guy. Our main marketing strategy is called “community touches”—it’s not so much what we say we are but what we do. So I lead all of that. We do the Easter egg thing. We care about families, so we do family events. And so we let our values lead those things.

AS: Were you one of the three families that started Northpointe?

CL: Yes. Me and my wife moved out in June—we’re originally from the St. Louis area, and we were one of the three couples that moved to this area.

AS: So what did you have in mind for music when you started the church?

CL: Well, I’ve known Jordan for a while, and he has a lead over all of the music stuff. I was excited to have someone who could take lead over the music stuff. I knew where some of his talents were, but also where his heart was, and so for the first time to really be involved in church to set the trend in the church with the arts—making something happen. Just to really have music that could worship god, bring the people in together, and to really create the environment where people can worship God. So many times that just hasn’t happened in my experience where people come together and they really worship God instead of just singing songs. That’s what I really imagine the music being—more worship than just songs.

AS: So what were your past experience in other churches? Were they similar ideologically to Northpointe?

CL: Yes. Theologically, ideologically, similar. Methodologically, completely different. I came from a church that was traditionally like, “let’s sing with a piano and a choir and some old guy standing up front singing songs that couldn’t carry a tune”. But the church absolutely loved that—it was more rural, Illinois… And there wasn’t any atmosphere. So that’s what I was brought up with. When I was leaving the church which I came from, they did move to more of a style that we have here, but it wasn’t anywhere close to what we were doing.

AS: So they put together a band?

CL: Started barely getting a band. A couple of people got their feathers ruffled when we brought a drumset up on stage, you know, that kind of stuff. It was moving that direction. This (Northpointe) is completely different. There’s an environment. It’s not just about—we’ll explore this later as we get older as a church—but there’s an environment that we’re intentionally trying to create inside on Sunday with all of the arts—we really believe that arts can create an environment in which to experience God.

AS: How important do you think music is in terms of shaping the service and shaping the congregation?

CL: I think it varies on multiple levels. I think it’s very important to some people, and then not very important to some other people. Everything we do is based on “discipleship”. One on one conversations. What draws people into that conversation is going to be different for every single experience. So maybe for you guys who are just drawn in by music, it’s so important and shapes everything you do on Sunday. But for some people, it might not be that important, and so there might be different experiences that could draw them into conversation. So I guess it is important as it is to that person. I know people come to the church because of the music here. I know people here. I know people come to the church because they like the speaking… or the popcorn (laughs).

Jordan: Some people come in spite of the music

CL: Yeah, so I really think it’s important, but it’s not the goal. Everything revolves around one on one conversations. Whatever it is that draws people into that conversation is what is the most important thing. Music’s important to shape the experience, but it’s not the goal.

AS: In terms of syncing Northpointes “methodology” with the messages in the music, do you feel that they “line up”?

CL: They line up OK right now. I wish it was better, and it will only get better in time. We have a meeting every week where we get ideas together, and we talk about the environment, what we’re trying to do, what the end goal is—everything revolves around a dominant thought. Jordan creates the environment around that thought. So I think it syncs OK right now, but it’s not great. But that’s not the end goal. On Sunday, it’s important, but it’s not the most important thing. If we have conversations with people to get them into relationships, that’s all that matters to us.

AS: I’m a novice to the Christian music scene, locally and commercially, but it seems like Christian music in general is a very diverse thing. Do you see any cohesive style amongst the broad umbrella of Christian music that you can latch on to?

CL: Well, definitely. I feel like we already are latching on to a specific style. And in talks that we’ve had, we don’t want to do that forever. We really want to set the pace in a lot of things that we do because that’s going to attract certain people that will continue to do that. So yeah, there are trends that we are following—is that what you’re asking?

AS: It seems like selecting certain songs bring particular elements to the table. Elements particular to the people who write and record these songs. When Jordan sends me mp3s etc., I look up the songwriters and some of them are mega-stars. Do you ever feel there is a conflict in engaging with these songs—between the particular individuals who make the music and using that individual’s work as a vessel to something… else?

CL: This is not me and music—I mostly listen to whatever he (Jordan) gives me… and what Justin is into as well. I’m not the cutting edge guy, you know. I just listen. I mean, I’d listen to Jack Johnson until I die.

AS: Maybe that’s a question we can direct to Jordan… what about when you’re participating in the service. How do you feel about your role as a component of the musical element in the church?

CL: I see mine as a voice of many. I don’t see the band as being any more than leading us a relationship or experience with God. They really lead in the experience. I’m having a different experience than anybody else will in that auditorium. And so, I feel like I’m part of many voices and many people having the same experience at the same moment. I don’t play any instruments, I don’t do anything—I just hang out… I talk.

JP: He plays the tuba

CL: The Sousaphone… a long time ago, in high school. The reason why we focus on music and the creative arts here is—eventually one day—Jordan might not be the one to do it, but when we create songs ourselves, there are people who will be attracted. There is a creative element to God. We believe he created everything, and he has inherently given that element to us. And so I’m excited for people to be able to experience God in that way and show their appreciation by writing, developing, doing things like that. So you ask about the mainstream guys? They’re only mainstream because we make them mainstream. The words that they say connect to our hearts for the moment. Hopefully we’ll create our own stuff eventually.

JP: The cool thing about that is that a lot of the songs we sing have somebody else’s words. They’re writing those words out of experiences from their own lives. And as we grow as a church, we’re able to tell our stories, and I think that completely changes everything for us. If I’m writing a song, and I’m thinking of a specific individual and something that’s happened in their life, every time I see those words and every time we sing those words a church we’re thinking about that. It becomes more personal.

AS: Have you ever written anything yourself?

JP: No

AS: Do you have any aspirations… hopes… dreams to do such a thing?

JP: Honestly, I’ve come to the realization that this important just recently. I’ve been wrestling with that. For a long time I was like, “Oh, I’ll just sing other people’s stuff”. But as this church grows and we accumulate stories here at Northpointe, we definitely want to make our own songs. With no real goal but to sing them here…

AS: You’re still interpreting these songs every time you play them. What goes into that interpretation? What’s your process? Do you try to make them your own or are you trying to be authentic to the recording?

JP: It’s interesting because sometimes I’m thinking about what everybody else is playing and people are watching me, and it’s hard for a worship leader to be in that place that he’s trying to lead others to. Not all the time do I think about what I’m singing. Today there were times when I probably wasn’t thinking about what I was singing, but there were other times I definitely was. Start crying and my voice gets shaking and I look like a pansy…

AS: What about the group you’re playing with? It seems from our conversations that you have a rotating cast of players in the band.

JP: It depends on the person. You met Nate… sometimes he gets lost in what he’s doing. He’s one that always sings along while he’s playing the drums. He’s fun to watch. It depends, there are some people who are just playing music.

AS: What about sonically… stylistically?

JP: Are you talking about what we do live with the recordings we have?

AS: Yeah. Are you developing your own style at Northpointe?

JP: It depends on who’s up there. We’ve got a guy who plays electric guitar and it sounds like Metallica. If he had it his own way, it’d probably sound like Metallica all the time. So that kind of comes through—there’s a little more 80s rock sound in a lot of the stuff that he plays. The way that I corral that a little kind of thing is to tell people to learn what I send them. We don’t have a ton of time to rehearse, usually a couple hours on Thursday or Saturday morning, and so we don’t have a ton of time to shake that stuff and make it our own. I tell people to do their best to learn what’s on the recording and then we can go from there.

AS: As a new church, is it important to have a cohesive style, whatever that may be?

JP: Oh yeah.

AS: It seems like you guys have put a lot of thought into having a well-defined image. As a new church you’re trying to attract people to come. Everything from your website to your logos to your signs and team of volunteers who staff the service. The service is very smooth and transitions are clean and seamless and the sound is good. How is this actually important to you?

JP: We try to limit people’s distractions. If stuff like that goes wrong—technically in the service—it can be distracting. If they’re in a place where they’re mentally worshipping God and the something like that happens, then immediately (snaps) it’s just done. We do our best. We have the battlecry of “excellence without extravagance”. We fight really hard to not make it all about that stuff. To our volunteers we say this is important, but if you get some wrong, it’s not a big deal. You’re not going to get fired or something.

CL: And I would say this. It’s important, but it’s definitely not the most important thing. Everything goes back to conversation—how do we have one on one conversations with people. I seriously spend maybe 5% of my week on a Sunday—what are we doing on Sunday. Jordan probably spends 25-30% on that kind of thing. The rest of our time is spent with people talking about discipleship, community group coaching. That can maybe gage how important, but really our battlecry is “we want to be excellent, but we don’t want to be extravagant”. We’re not going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on things that are not necessary. At the same time, we’re going to make sure we spend the right amount of money in the right places to make it look like we have it together. Which we do, but that could be a distraction to people. We want to be put together, but we don’t want to go up there with five button suits…

JP: We try and be polished and know what’s on, but never too polished.

AS: So I guess my final question is how conscious you are in developing a musical voice, both stylistically and with the words, and how much of the effort is to actually develop music or how much of that is just a tool to get to the greater ideas or purpose of the church?

CL: We’ve had a lot of conversations because there are a few areas where we want to set the trend. One of them is the in the arts. The question is “why?” Jordan will say, “I don’t get it, why would we want to do that?” Because that seems very, “look at us…” Let’s just assume that that could possibly happen, if people want to learn something about the arts, they could point to Northpointe. Isn’t that just kind of self righteous? What’s the purpose of that? And really everything has to funnel through our real purpose, which is our vision, which is to transform people led by God to change lives. A simple way of saying it is to create disciples who create disciples. If people just come to the church, we utterly fail. If people come and just want to learn some music and hear some cool music, we utterly fail. I want to be part of a place that’s changing and moving—not just within a building, but actually doing something in the broader perspective of the community and culture. I hope we set a voice. I hope we set multiple voices. I hope people see us as trendsetters, but not for our own glory, but for God’s glory. Ultimately that’s what it’s for. So our end goal—do we want to do that? Completely? I think we will do that… but if we don’t create disciples, we fail.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Research Notes Part 3

I went to my first Northpointe service on 3/7/10—the services are held in Theater 8 of the Cinemaworld at Lincoln Mall in Lincoln, RI every Sunday at 10 A.M. The picturesque city of Providence thins out as you drive North, and Lincoln’s mall is in a relatively non-descript suburban setting. There are signs at the entrance of the mall ushering folks around to the Cinemaworld parking lot, and more signs on the path to the entrance—I was welcomed many times during the walk from my car to the door of the theater. Outside of Theater 8 are a few tables with piles of study Bibles and “connect cards”, along with some refreshments (coffee and movie popcorn).

The “church” itself is simply a movie theater. Those familiar with churchgoing might feel that going to church in a movie theater is non-traditional, but it is becoming more and more common and clearly working for people. Jordan et. al. set up a projector in the middle of the space, along with a soundboard with all of the accoutrements. A 5-piece band (drummer, bassist, electric guitarist, acoustic guitar/vocalist—Jordan, and second harmony vocalist) is set up and fully mic-ed and amplified. There is some light background music playing before the service starts, and some church notices are cycling through on the screen. There are somewhere around 150 people in attendence, and when 10:00 rolls around, Jordan leads people to stand up and join in song.

Jordan is the Worship Arts director at Northpointe, and the “lead singer” of sorts in the church band. The band’s style is tight, and the sound is very clean—the electric guitar is very distorted but not overwhelming, the vocals soar out above the mix, and the drummer is behind one of those plastic sound-shields. They all have music stands with the lyrics/chord charts, make transitions between songs/parts of the service seamlessly, and all and all have a very professional feel to their group.

The service is structured like this: there are a couple of songs, some announcements, another song, the sermon, then communion which is accompanied with a song, some final thoughts, then a last song. There’s quite a lot of music in the service, with the other major elements being mainly the sermon and the communion (although there is music during that). During the songs, the lyrics are projected behind the band so that people can sing along. Most people seem to be singing, however it is difficult to hear people singing—even when there’s a 100+ people—when the band is playing full force. Apart from singing, there is a fair amount of dancing and arm-raising. I question whether the congregation/audience can hear themselves sing, if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and if there is an element of church being a safe place where people can sing and dance.

Here is a live recording that I captured from out in the audience using an M-Audio recorder. While not as good as soundboard recordings, listen for people singing around me:

There is definitely an overall aesthetic to Northpointe. Despite not having their own brick-and-mortar structure, there is a specific mood and ambiance created in Theater 8 of the Lincoln Cinemaworld. Outside of the service, this is done with conspicuous and branded signs and pamphlets, plenty of materials to read as well as connect with the Northpointe community more in depth, and swaths of volunteers who are identified with some sort of Northpointe nametag or sticker who welcome the congregation and engage in one on one conversation. Inside the service and apart from the genre/style of music, there’s the actual structure of the movie theater with its cushioned seats, cup holders, and stadium seating, plus the images, lyrics, words and graphics projected up onto the big screen. Unlike a traditional service, there is no alter, just a mic stand up front, and you don’t go forth to get communion. Volunteers bring it to you in small, disposable cups on a kidney-shaped plastic platter.

The preacher at this particular service—Ron—was “pinch hitting” for the “Christ’s Game Plan” sermon series. Ron is from Louisville, KY originally, but moved to Nashua, NH to run the CrossWay church (another “church plant”, like Northpointe). The sermon—looking at Mark chapter 10—took up about as much time as everything else in the service put together and was clearly the focal point of the morning.

Cross reference with: "What to Expect"