Category: Music and Dance

[Cover ofThe Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions]

The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions

Edited by Michael Church. 2015. Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer. 404 pages. ISBN: 978-1-84383-726-8 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Bruno Nettl, University of Illinois

[Review length: 1076 words • Review posted on December 15, 2015]


In certain ways, this is a conventional book, providing a sampling of the musical systems of the world, paralleling many “world music” textbooks published in the last two decades. In more important respects, it is unique in providing a survey of what may be considered classical (in the sense that we call music by Bach and Beethoven but also by Hindemith and Khatchaturian” "classical”). Ethnomusicologists have for decades used this term, “classical,” to denote musical traditions that are carried out by learned professionals, with a documented history and an articulated system of thought or theory. They have used this term while cringing a bit, realizing that the lines between “classical,” “vernacular,” “folk,” “popular,” “indigenous,” and various other genres found within one society—or perhaps distinguishing musical societies from each other—are difficult to draw and indistinct, and wishing to avoid the implied value judgments. Most surveys of world music—there are a dozen or so textbooks currently available—actually provide a good deal about classical traditions but don't make much of their special character.

The Other Classical Musics tells about fifteen learned (my teacher George Herzog called it "cultivated") music traditions of the world, making no bones about giving them pride of place in the realm of music, using, as a subtitle, the concept of "great traditions" coined originally by the anthropologist Milton Singer to distinguish the learned traditions of South Indian thought (and music) that unify the Carnatic cultures from regional, local, folk, often constantly changing cultural forms (the "little" traditions). The Other Classical Musics consists of fifteen chapters, each about one tradition (well, sometimes a small group of traditions), each by a musicological, ethnomusicological, or area studies specialist, some with backgrounds in journalism. It is with noting—with a feeling of relief, considering the book's title—that the tradition of Western classical music is one of these, treated as much as possible as simply one of the world's musics. Considering that each of the essays provides a comprehensive survey of 25-30 pages, it seems appropriate to mention titles and authors: 1) Southeast Asian traditions by Terry Miller; 2) Java by Neil Sorrell; 3) Japan by David W. Hughes; 4) The Fuqin zither traditions of China by Frank Kouwenhoven; 5) Chinese opera, by Terry Miller and Michael Church; 6) North India by Richard Widdess; 7) South India by Jonathan Katz; 8) West African Mande Jaliyaa by Roderic Knight; 9) North American jazz by Scott DeVeaux; 10) Europe by Ivan Hewett; 11) North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean Andalusian Music by Dwight F. Reynolds; 12) the Eastern Arab world by Scott Marcus; 13) Turkey by Robert Labaree; 14) Iran by Ameneh Youssefzadeh; and 15) Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by Will Sumits. An introductory chapter by the editor, Michael Church, provides some synthesis which, considering the authority of the rest of the authors—several are world-renowned scholars—lacks a bit of sophistication in the history of ethnomusicology.

Although this is not a book that provides the results of new research, each essay gives a relatively thorough, sophisticated account of a major music culture; in most respects this is an excellent collection. It makes the point, strongly, that the various classical traditions of the world music scene have important things in common, that the attitude widely encountered of “the West and the rest” makes no sense, and that there are learned musicians and thinkers about music everywhere. Most of the essays follow a common format, beginning with an account of a musical event, then giving a rather thorough historical background of culture and music (usually occupying half of the space), and continuing on with music theory, genres, instruments, and social contexts. They vary in the amount of attention given to issues of aesthetics, philosophy, religion, and such culture-specific issues as the legitimacy of music (in Muslim cultures).

This is not a book for the total novice. One needs some background in music theory to follow the arguments, and there are many notated musical examples (and discussion of non-Western notation systems). One of the work's great assets is the body of about 140 photographs of sources, relevant art works, musicians and performances, and instruments.

Altogether, this excellent work brings to mind some issues with which ethnomusicologists have long been concerned. One is the problem of boundaries. Inevitably, it was impossible to provide parallel treatment for all fifteen “traditions.” Providing excellent descriptions of musical events, it also shows that the notion that these “great traditions” are alike may be mistaken. Some are broadly cross-cultural—such as European classical music, which extends from Portugal to Russia to the Americas with significant regional distinctions—and others are limited to smaller culture areas, e.g., the Japanese art music culture, or Carnatic music. I wonder whether it is reasonable to regard Eastern and Western Arabic cultures, along with Turkey—all based on the concept of maqam/makam—as separate systems (as this book does), while Europe is one unit, as is the group of Southeast Asian musics.

And then, it is important to point out that while there are these great traditions of music in the world, they are often really very different from each other, and some very close to other types of musical traditions—folk, indigenous, etc. Some depend far more on notation and verbal theory than others. And finally: ethnomusicologists have played down, for decades, the qualitative distinctions among musical strata in individual societies. I have tried, for example, to show that most cultures—even Native Americans—contain in their repertories their own “great traditions” which they distinguish from their equivalents of popular and folk. Thus, the repertory of central religious ceremonies of the Blackfoot or Navajo could—probably should—be regarded as their “great traditions.” Even in the sphere of folk musics, central canonic repertories (the tradition of epics in South Slavic folk cultures; the old ballads in Anglo-American folk music come to mind) are great traditions of a sort.

Well, these thoughts are suggested by contemplation of what is altogether a really fine and useful collection of essays. I think the editor was aware of these issues. Still, the irony of trying to separate “great traditions” from the rest strikes the reader very early in the book, in the photo facing page 1, the beginning of Michael Church's introduction, which shows Béla Bartók recording folk songs from peasants in a Slovak village in 1907. Having myself studied both folk and classical traditions in various parts of the world for many years, I continue to be uncertain about the universal usefulness of this distinction.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.