Fall 1998 Volume XXVIII, No. 1
Rethinking the Rhapsody
by Richard Crawford
New Music Notes
Time to Remember Zez Confrey by Artis Wodehouse
Behind the Beat
Widening the Lens II
A Centenary Moment?
by Stephen Banfield
Gershwin on Disc
Country and Gospel Notes
Widening the Lens II
by Daniel Kingman
The editors of the ISAM Newsletter have suggested to me that “there is room for a more sustained dialogue on changing conceptions of the American musical landscape.” In response, I welcome their invitation to further this dialogue spurred by Mark Slobin’s lead article in the Spring 1998 Newsletter. Slobin, in my opinion, fails to give full appreciation to the function and place of a general survey on American music. I therefore propose an alternate view and hope that others will take the opportunity to continue the discussion.
“Widening the lens,” to quote from the title of Slobin’s article, is something nearly all serious thinkers, writers, and lecturers on American music have been doing for quite some time now. While (nearly) everyone’s approach to American music becomes more inclusive, and as specialists continue their indispensable explorations, the search for a viable, up-to-date taxonomy of American music goes on. But it will never be finished, and we can be assured that we will never arrive at a set of categories that will satisfy everyone. How do we get on with it, and how do we get on with each other as we each do our work?
One thing we can avoid at the start is confusing a work that is by nature specialist (dealing with specific subcultures, or “micromusics”) with one that is generalist, the aim of which is to make some sort of sense out of the whole picture. We cannot have the same expectations for both. A work that is inherently specialist cannot be expected to concern itself very much with the “big picture.” On the other hand, it is all too easy for the specialist to criticize a general work for failing to give adequate space to one of the specialist’s favorite subjects.
Slobin illustrates this latter tendency by restricting his approval almost entirely to specialist essays. The work of the specialist is extremely important to the growth of our knowledge of American music. But it is not the same as the task of the generalist, who must organize, summarize, and perforce arrange the subject into categories. Categories are a vexing necessity in a survey, whereas in a specialist work they can be ignored. All that is really necessary for the latter is for the writer to supply a limiting definition to the particular subculture or “micromusic” being dealt with, without necessarily having to fit it into the larger picture. Subtitles such as Mexican American Music in Los Angeles or Caribbean Popular Music in New York give promise of interesting, in-depth studies, without in themselves promising any contribution to what Slobin calls “an overall perspective on American music’s fascinating propensity for interchange.”
Categories are of course arbitrary abstractions with but limited capacity for conveying the “whole truth” of any subject. Inventive and original thinkers can work cross-wise through “given” categories and come up with new insights into a subject (often resulting in its arrangement into different categories!). Indeed, it is the very challenging of categories–working against them, as it were–that leads to fresh views. This can be manifested as an interchange between cultures (or between categories), as Slobin has pointed out, and he gives a few examples. It would be useful to hear additional examples of interchange from others in a variety of fields, together with their ideas about how knowledge of these interchanges could lead to significant renovations of our perceptions of the larger American musical panorama. Moreover, it would be interesting to invite as many scholars as would accept the challenge to assume the role of the generalist, and present their ideal organization of the entire panorama, even into–well, yes, even into chapters. As we approach the millennium, how would a broad cross-section of the best scholars present the whole teeming, complex picture of American music making? Mark Slobin got the subject off to a good start.
–California State University, Sacramento