28 April 2008

Jeremiah Wright on music

OK, so I've finally found a subject to take issue with with Rev. Wright. On CSPAN today, he was denouncing the idea that the western music tradition is any more valid than the African music tradition. I'm all for inclusive education in the arts, but his examples were so poorly chosen as to--and I really hate to say this--invoke the specter of reverse discrimination.

His first example was harmless enough (although he phrased it inequitably as a value judgement), suggesting that western tradition emphasizes predominantly martial time with a notable absence of syncopation. In his fantasy world, African music freed the west from Sousa by offering up the off-beat clapping of gospel. I've often heard different forms of this argument, and it does injustice to both lineages. In the west, early sacred choral music took much from Eastern Europe and therefore took much of Eastern Europe's compound meter and shifting metric relationships. Similarly but different, Baroque virtuoso music stretched metric interest by committing to paper the technical flights of violin and keyboard masters. Beethoven also introduced great rhythmic color into his pieces, as did Brahms (although perhaps depending primarily on hemiolas). To say that Africa gave the west "syncopation" is like saying the west gave Africa "freedom."

Martial music is often simplistic in that it is meant simply to count to four and do little else. Conversely, folk music can be rhythmically surprising (for reasons I don't know) if a bit repetitive. Early Renaissance folk meter borrowed its irregularity from language (e.g. musique mesuree). Bartok and Kodaly transcribed much Eastern European folk music and came away absorbing and re-passing on its inventiveness to the western tradition. Gospel has similar characteristics but could only arrogantly declare itself as FIRST POST.

Rev. Wright is well-read, so I'm not sure why he would paint such a tainted picture. He does have a couple of nutty canards as Bill Moyers generously labels them, so maybe it's simply more of the same.

[ posted by sstrader on 28 April 2008 at 11:23:30 PM in Music ]