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10 Questions for Timothy Rice: The beauty of Balkan song is a prime focus for School of Music director

December 21st, 2009 · 55 Comments


Timothy Rice is ethnomusicology professor and director of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Professor Rice is founding co-editor of the 10-volume Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, and author of Music in Bulgaria: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford University Press, 2004), and May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music (University of Chicago Press, 1994), which Wesleyan University professor Mark Slobin called ?unparalleled in the literature in English on folk/post-folk systems of Europe.? Professor Rice, who took his first research trip to the Balkans in 1969, was honored by Bulgaria?s president in 2008 with a national medal (the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, second degree) for his ?significant contributions to the scientific study of Bulgarian folklore and his popularization of Bulgarian culture in the United States of America.? Professor Rice spoke with students who were taking a Fall 2009 music-journalism course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Professor Rice talked about the athleticism of Bulgarian dance, the coincidences that led him to ethnomusicology, how the field has progressed in 50 years, music cognition, and (among other subjects) his love of Lil? Mama?s song, ?Lip gloss.? The interviewers were Joseph Buchanan, Christopher Robinson, Ji-Won Kim, and Jennifer Li.

Jennifer Li: You were an athlete in college, which got you interested in Bulgarian dance, which led to your passion for Bulgarian music. Can you talk about that?

Professor Rice: As a younger boy, I was a baseball player. Then in high school and college, I ran track ? I was a sprinter. And one of the things I think is true is that I was attracted to the athleticism of these Balkan folk dances. They were in very fast tempo, so you had to move your legs quickly. And then some of them were somewhat athletic, with squats you would do. You?ve seen those Russian folk dances where they squat and kick their legs out and all that sort of stuff? They were dances like that. So it seemed to me like a transposition of whatever modest athleticism I had into the domain of dancing. Then, of course, dancing is a kind of musical art on some level, and I was a musician as well. Dancing was something I hadn?t really done much of or expertly until I got into college, and then I found this particular type of Balkan folk dancing, which seemed on some level to combine my previous experience as a musician and an athlete.

Jennifer Li: As an undergraduate, you majored in history at Yale. Did you discover your interest in Balkan music in the beginning or your later years there?

Professor Rice: It was in my junior and senior years. I had not thought I?d go into music as a profession, although I played music in high school and so on. All throughout my college career, I played music and I sang ? I was a singer, and sang in various, semi-professional groups. From early in high school, I wanted to get a Ph.D. in something. And I didn?t know you could get a Ph.D. in music. I thought you could just be a player of music. That?s all I knew ? that you could just be a musician. And I didn?t think that I probably was good enough to have a major career in music. I thought that ? like my own teachers ? I would end up teaching little children. And maybe playing casuals on the weekends. And I didn?t want to do that. I wanted to get a Ph.D. in something ? I just didn?t know what it was.

So it was a coincidence that I discovered ? about one month before graduating from university ? that there was this discipline called Ethnomusicology, where you could study the sort of thing that I was crazy about in college, which was Balkan dancing and Balkan music. Early in my college career, I majored in biochemistry. And the people at Yale university think that I graduate in biochemistry, so I still get newsletters from them ? with little profiles of all the graduates, and they?re all the heads of medicine and pathology at these famous hospitals, and I thought I should send them a note saying, ?Well, I?m director of the School of Music at UCLA.? (Class laughs.) I ended up majoring in history, partly because the biochemistry was going to be too demanding, and I had too much music to be playing in those years.

Christopher Robinson: Can you talk more about this coincidence that you stumbled upon ethnomusicology ? and the circumstances surrounding that?

Professor Rice: Well, I was doing this Balkan folk dancing, which was this ?town gown? organization at Yale ? that is they were students, and people from the town. And one of the people who was folk-dancing with me had been going up to Wesleyan University, to study Mridangam, the south Indian drum, and he said, ?Oh, Tim ? you should go up to Wesleyan University and come to one of our South Indian evenings. We have pot-luck suppers, and we listen to South Indian music. I was just trying to get a degree at that point (laughs) ? just trying to finish my studies, and I was terribly busy. And I said, ?Well, I?m not interested in South Indian music.? I later became interested in South Indian music. But I never went up to Wesleyan, which had one of seven Ph.D. programs in Ethnomusicology at the time, unknown to me.

Then, some months later, he said, ?Well, Tim ? next year, they?re going to have a Greek man come and teach Greek clarinet and teach people to speak Greek, and take them to Greece for a field trip.” And I play clarinet, and I?d begun to play Balkan music on the clarinet, based on listening to the records that we were dancing to. And I said, ?Now that?s interesting.? So one month before I graduated from university, I drove up to Wesleyan and met some of the faculty there, and they showed me this room somewhat like our Gamelan Room upstairs. I remember being dazzled by this Javanese gamelan, and then there was a whole, big stack of Ewe drums from Ghana, and I said ? with my mouth hanging open ? ?What is this?? And they said, ?This is ethnomusicology.? And I said, ?Well, I don?t know what that is, but that?s what I want to do.? (Class laughs.) ?Sign me up.? And they accepted me on the spot, to be a graduate student there.

Those were the good old days (class laughs) when you could just walk into a place and they?d accept you. It was the ?60s, too, which helped. But they couldn?t give me a scholarship, and it was a private university, so it was way too expensive. And I went back to Seattle, where I?d gone to high school. I?d always intended to work for a couple of years after college. I was a bit burned out with academic work. And I did. And then it turned out that one of the seven graduate programs in ethnomusicology at the time was at the University of Washington in Seattle. So I went over there, eventually, and talked to the head of the program there, and he accepted me on the spot. The degree was an M.A. and Ph.D. in music, but ethnomusicology was one of the specialties.

I don?t know if I told this story, but I discovered folk dancing just by seeing a sign on a wall at Yale that said, ?International Folk Dancing ? No Partners Necessary. Sunday night on campus.? And I thought, ?Well, I don?t have a partner. And maybe dancing would be fun.? So I went over there, and the rest for me is history. It?s just this astonishing set of coincidences in my life ? I feel like whatever success I?ve had in my life has been largely due to accidents of various kinds. Happy accidents for the most part.

Joseph Buchanan: From being a history major, was there anything about the Balkan culture at that time ? before you started dancing ? that interested you?

Professor Rice: No. I had no interest in Eastern Europe, and no special interest in world cultures. It totally developed through my encounter through European dance culture, as it were. They called it ?International Folk Dancing,? but it was primarily European ? line dances from southern Europe, some couple dances from northern Europe, and some Israeli line dances. I didn?t know anything. Seeing this ?International Folk Dancing ? No Partners Necessary? ? that was the big part of the attraction. ?No partners necessary.?

Then I discovered that the reason was that ? in our culture, when you think of dancing, you think of having to invite a girl, then you go to the dance. And Yale at the time was an all-boys school. There were no girls to go with. And then of course they were doing these line dances, so people just get up in the line, and you hold hands or sometimes you put hands on people?s shoulders next to you. There?s no order ? it can be boy-boy, boy-girl, girl-girl. You don?t have to ask anyone to dance with you. And that turned out to be what the doctor ordered.

Ji-Won Kim: You mentioned you played music on the clarinet. Did you play by ear?

Professor Rice: The first struggle with the dancing was to learn the steps. And the steps were quite complicated. They were not only athletic and fast, they were a lot of variations. For example, a dance might start out with a somewhat simple pattern, and then the dance would have a whole set of variations in effect, from a musical point of view. You had to memorize all these variations. So it was a fairly steep learning curve with these dances. You have to remember that, ?OK, after eight measures, I have to switch my feet and do something else ? then eight more measures later, I have to do something else,” and so on.

After a year, I kind of got that and began listening to the music ? I was just trying to get the beat, and get my feet and body going. And as I began to listen, I realized that probably half or more of the records featured a clarinet lead. And I played clarinet. So then I asked people in the group, ?Does anyone here play a musical instrument ? maybe we could form a little band to play this music?? And it turned out that there were two guitar players and two accordion players of all things. And accordion is also a prominent instrument in this kind of music. So we got together, and we took the music off the records. We transcribed it, in effect.

Ji-Won Kim: Can you talk about the scholarly work you did on Balkan music, and about your transcription work?

Professor Rice: I started in 1968. It turned out that the word ?ethnomusicology? was invented and published for the first time in 1950, so the discipline was only 18 years old ? I was older than the discipline when I started in it. (Class laughs.) It was exciting. We were kind of inventing ethnomusicology. And of course UCLA was very important in that invention. And my teacher (at Washington) got his M.A. and Ph.D. degree here at UCLA. I feel like I?m a grandson of UCLA in that way. But in those days, pretty much one of the big intellectual problems in the discipline was how to collect and gather and transcribe into notation traditional music. And of course there are enormous problems with that, because Western notation was not invented to transcribe world music ? it was invented to help composers get their work out there, so we say in ethnomusicology that Western notation is prescriptive. It tries to prescribe what musicians should do. Whereas when you try to apply it to a world music, you transform it into a descriptive means, and it doesn?t work very well.

First, it wasn?t designed to be descriptive. And second of all, it wasn?t designed to handle all the subtleties of world music ? like rhythmic things, like non-metrical music. Western notation really depends on the idea of measured music; having a beat in it. And Bulgarian music ? half of it is non-metrical ? so it?s ridiculous. And then if you get into things like a Middle Eastern tradition, with microtones and things like that, Western notation is built on a 12-tone equal-timbered system. Even if it?s not microtonal, Western notation doesn?t do a very good job of handling just non-tempered scales. For example, how do you represent that, as a Western listener, a note is just a little bit flat ? that a third-degree of a scale seems a little bit flat. They don?t have a theory of it, and you don?t know what you?re hearing exactly ? so what do you do? We did things like have a little arrow over the note that would point down on the note. So there?s a lot of transcription.

My master?s thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation were based on huge amounts of transcription. Nowadays in ethnomusicology, we don?t do that so much. We?ll consider anthropological questions about the meaning of the music, the symbolic value of music, the relationship between music and culture ? these have come to dominate the intellectual landscape. So, we do some transcription to this day, but not so much.

Joseph Buchanan: Where do you see the field of ethnomusicology going from here? And how else has ethnomusicology progressed since the 1950s?

Professor Rice: Let?s start with the progress idea. Ethnomusicology in its beginnings had a fundamental split between what are called musicological approaches and anthropological approaches to music. I was raised ? and UCLA represented ? the musicological approach, where we collected the music, we wrote it down, we analyzed the music, we described its structures, and so on. There was another group of people who came out of the departments of anthropology ? the most famous of whom was a man named Alan Merriam; also a man named John Blacking in England ? and they were interested in asking questions about the meaning of music, how it was supported in terms of the politics and economics and social structures and all of that kind of thing.

The first big progress had happened by 1978 ? so, maybe 10 years after I entered the field ? and basically, these two approaches merged. I wrote in one of my articles that ethnomusicology came of age in around 1978.

Christopher Robinson: Was there some sort of catalyst for this?

Professor Rice: No, I don?t think so. It was a gradual thing ? people thinking, ?How are we going to bring these things together.? We realized that we were born of two parents, as it were. And the idea was, ?How do we create a unique field ? the union of the two approaches.? And people were working on the problem. And in the late ?70s, we more or less figured it out. From the late ?70s on, even people who were going to schools in ethnomusicology were asking and answering anthropological questions about the music. And what?s happened over the last 30 years is that there?s been a kind of efflorescence I would say of the kinds of themes and issues that we talk about. So Alan Merriam in 1964 laid out about 12 of these themes, and today, if you look at the web site of the Society for Ethnomusicology, I think there are 92 themes or issues that ethnomusicologists study, and these are things like, ?How is music taught and learned? What?s the relationship between music and politics? How does music reinforce or challenge cultural notions, say, of gender, behavior and identity?” And on and on. So there?s been this efflorescence of questions about the field.

What?s going on currently? I think the most interesting thing is that these issues continue to arise. So I?ll give you two new issues and themes that are quite exciting. One is studying music in situations of war and violence. This has not typically been the case in the past. And the other general question ? which is not unrelated ? is the study of music in relation to things like medical pandemics such as the HIV/AIDS crisis around the world and so on. What?s the use of music in those kinds of crises?

In the past, music probably flourishes in places where there?s some stability, and music can be supported by a stable society of some kind, whether it be a government or local village or whatever it is. It?s hard to imagine music being made in very, very unstable conditions. But the world has become less stable in the last 40 years, than it was in 1968, and I think finally people are going into conditions of instability, war and violence and trying to look at what?s going on. Because we do know that song and music continues to be performed in those kinds of situations. And it becomes terribly important in those situations. So, finally, I would say that ethnomusicologists just in the past five years or so ? maybe 10 to be generous ? have strarted to study music in these problem areas, whether wracked by disease and other problmes or war and violence.

Where the field is going to go, I don?t know. My own hope ? what I find lacking in the field, and I?ve been writing about this lately ? is what I could simply call a comparative perspective. So, if you go back 100 years, let?s say, to the late 19th and early 20th century, the people then were called comparative musicologists. And they wanted to ask big questions about the nature of music. They wanted to know how it evolved. They assumed it evolved as a cultural phenomenon over time, from a primitive to the complex, for example. They wanted to try to explain why it was you could find a certain style of singing in Bulgaria and also Ethiopia and also in the Solomon islands. What did that mean? How could such a particular way of music turn up in three such different places?

In the ?50s and ?60s, they basically said, ?We don?t know enough to answer these questions. Many of the reports we have from these different places were sent to us by missionaries, by diplomats ? the reports are flawed. We can?t really ask and answer these broadscale questions, so let?s just study in detail particular societies, and figure out how music works in those particular societies.? And we?ve been doing that for 40 years. My own view is that we need to return to comparison, now that we?ve had 40 years of professional study of individual cultures all over the world.

Surely, we have enough data to be able to begin to re-ask these big questions. Maybe not the same big questions that the comparative musicologists were answering, but if we want to say, ?OK, what does music contribute to the construction of one?s sense of one?s self ? one?s sense of one?s personal identity?? What does music contribute to that? And let?s look across the world now. We have many studies of this. And we generalize in some sense about how music works in that kind of way. What I find lacking in the field is an attempt to answer those kinds of questions. In the next 25 years, I?d like to see us asking those questions. In fact, in an upcoming issue of the journal Ethnomusicology, which is one of three principal journals in our field, I issue a call to do just that.

Ji-Won Kim: What music do you listen to casually ? say on the way back home from UCLA?

Professor Rice: I only listen to Balkan music. (Class laughs.) I probably listen, broadly speaking, to three different kinds of music on my way home from school. One is Western classical music. I listen to what could be called alternative rock on KCRW. Some kind of pop-rock kind of stuff, which I enjoy keeping up with. And then I listen to various kinds of world music, like Latin music, Afro-pop music, Hawaiian music, things like that. And a kind of fourth category would be ? from time to time, although not regularly ? I listen to adult contemporary, the contemporary version of soul music. And sometimes some hip-hop ? again, to keep up with what?s going on. Every once in a while, I try to listen through Rolling Stone?s top 50 records of the previous year, and see if there?s anything interesting. Usually there isn?t. (Class laughs.) My favorite a couple of years ago ? it would have been 2007 or 2008 ? was a song by Lil Mama, ?Lip Gloss.? It?s a guilty pleasure. I just love that song. It was set in some kind of school environment. I basically liked the rhythm of it. They synthesize the sound of lockers slamming.

Christopher Robinson: I saw that you?ve studied and written about ?music cognition.? How is that studied? What is your impact and interest in that field?

Professor Rice: If you ask someone like professor Roger Kendall of our department, his field is psychoacoustics. So he does what he?d call empirical scientific studies of how people perceive music. He?d give them little tests ? “Here?s Music Sample A and Music Sample B, and what?s the difference between the two?” He does serious scientific work on music cognition.

My work flows from an ethnomusicological perspective. The first anthropological theory that had a big impact on people trained in musicology was something called cognitive anthropology. And cognitive anthropologists believe that culture is in the mind, and that the way to get into a person?s mind anthropologically was not to do these tests out in the field ? like a psychologist would ? but to talk to people, and elicit from them their terminology. How do they divide up the world? What do they think about the world? One of the things that anthropologists do is they do censuses when they go into a village. In the old days, they?d go from house to house and say, ?Who lives in this house?? And people would say, ?I do, and my mother does,? and so on. And they had this classification systems involving, say, a residence pattern in a culture. So, in our culture, we have what?s known as ?neo-local? residents. When we get married, the new couple usually goes off and lives by itself in a new place ? hence, ?neo-local.? In many cultures, when the bride and groom get married, they go and live with the bridegroom?s father ? that would be called ?patri-local residence.? In some cultures, they go and live with the mother of the bride, and that would be called ?matri-local residences.? So anthropologists care about stuff like that. It?s an objective, outsider, scientific approach. And the cognitive anthropologists said, ?Well, why don?t we go ask the people what the rules are.?

This seemed like a new deal for anthropologists. So a guy went and studies that. And he discovered that the first rule is you go and live with the parents of the bride ? so it?s ?matri-local? in those terms. But only 30 percent live ?matri-locally.? And what was that all about? Well, it was about economics. Could the parents of the bride afford to have them live there. And if they couldn?t live there, where could they live, etc. And that resulted in the result they got statistically.

For musicologists, taking that on board, when we go into many cultures of the world, they don?t have a theory of music. We have to impose our theory of music on them, and our categories on them as Western listeners. Now in some cultures, they have a local theory. In China, for example, there?s a local theory, because they have literacy and a long written tradition and they have notation. In India, there?s a 2,000-year history of theorizing about music. So we can learn from these native theories. But in most oral cultures, they don?t have music theories. So cognitive ethnomusicology, as it were, became about going out and eliciting the musical terminology and the musical theory of each local culture. So that was my kind of contribution.

I did in the case of Bulgaria. I went out there and asked people questions about their musical categories. One of my discoveries, for example, was in one region of Bulgaria ? I wrote my doctoral thesis on this ? they sing in what they called two-voice singing. So, two parts, but very close harmonies. Singing in seconds, almost continuously. It was very hard to hear that. And it?s hard to hear whether the first voice is going below the second or above, and precisely what?s going on. I ended up in one village, and these grandmothers were sitting there, and they said, ?Young man, what kind of music are you interested in? What do you want us to sing for you?? And I said, ?Well, I?m interested in your two-voiced singing.? And they said to me, ?Well, here, we have three-voiced singing.? And that was the first time anyone had ever noticed that, just because I asked the question.

That was my mode. I was trying to elicit from them. I said, ?Oh, three-voiced singing. Well, what do you call the voices?? And they told me. They said, ?One voice cries out.? That turned out to be the melody voice. ?One voice bellows straight.? Which meant they sang a kind of drone tone. ?And one voice bellows crookedly.? Which kind of went up and down, and alternated between two notes. And in the literature, the voice that was bellowing straight had never been described. Because it didn?t need to be described ? it was covered by the other two voices. One of the other two voices was always singing the drone tone. They were just so close together.

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