“Latin American Fiesta” and the Failure to Recognize the Latin American Perspective

I found this LP in the Halvorson Music Library collection.  If you look closely, you might be surprised to see Aaron Copland listed as one of the featured composers on this album.  In class we talked about other instances of Copland drawing inspiration from the folk music of Latin America, but I didn’t expect his music to be set alongside the music of artists from Mexico, Brazil and Portugal, like it is in “Latin American Fiesta”. 

While I find essentialism problematic in its own right, I have a hard time accepting Copland’s music into the genre of Latin American music, seeing as he is not a Latin American composer. I find his inclusion on an album of Latin American music problematic due to his position as an outsider of the musical tradition he is emulating as well as his place of privilege in the world classical music.  I see this as an instance where the white perspective wasn’t necessary, but was nonetheless held to an equal, if not higher importance than the perspective of those within the musical culture the album was highlighting.

More of these instances can be found on the back of the album cover, where conductor Leonard Bernstein comments about the “Latin American spirit”.  His exoticising of the music of Latin America as a blend of Native American and African music invalidates the genre as it’s own unique musical culture:

The sweet, simple primitiveness of the Indian music mixes with the wild, syncopated, throbbing primitiveness of African music; and both of these, mixed with the fiery flash of Spanish music and the sentimental sweetness of Portuguese songs, make up the music we know as Latin American.

While the inclusion of Copland and Bernstien’s views on Latin American culture are indicative of the ways the white perspective was favored in classical music, pieces like Bachianas Brasileiras, or “Brazilian pieces in the manor of Bach”, show that composers within different musical cultures were also being held to the standard of European classical music, and were changing their sound to fit a narrow mold reinforced by the educated, white, European and masculine standards set for classical music at the time.

While it is easy to see albums like this and think about how far we’ve come in, the failure to recognize the Latin American perspective is a more current issue than many realize, especially at St. Olaf.  In the 1989 Manitou Messenger article Olaf missing Latin American view, student Julia Kirst speaks about the struggles of being the only international student from all of Latin America, as well as the positives of celebrating diverse experiences.  I believe that providing a platform for people to share diverse experiences is the first step, and while the intentions of “Latin American Fiesta” may have been to provide such a platform, such intentions were undermined by the voices and perspectives they chose to include on the album.

Davrath, Netania, et al. Latin-American Fiesta. Columbia, 1963.

Kirst, Julia. “Olaf Missing Latin American View.” The Manitou Messenger, 3 Nov. 1989.

Bias and Sexism in the Search for the Great American Symphony

When I was working on the readings for our upcoming class, I was perplexed by the choices made in order to procure the definition of ‘American’ music.  It just sounded to me like no one knew what they wanted, criticizing composers for sounding too European while accepting music from foreign enemies into the American cannon over those from marginalized groups of Americans.  Fauser’s and Shadel’s articles do an especially good job in complicating the relationship between American music and European opinion, as the idea that American music must be differentiated in some way came from the Europeans and was put into practice first by Dvorak in his New World symphony.

Beach Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32 ‘Gaelic’

I was interested in the portion of Shadel’s article on Amy Beach’s response to Dvorak’s symphony and how she created her own interpretation.  Having been born and raised in America, one would think that Beach would have a leg up on Dvorak in composing American symphonies.  Her Gaelic Symphony, being the first symphony composed by an American woman, fits much of the criteria proposed of the idealized ‘great American symphony’; However, alongside the thinly veiled racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was thinly veiled sexism.  She was not taken seriously by critics due to her gender, despite her symphony being adored by audiences.  Compared to Dvorak and Chadwick, Beach’s music was described by critics as “delicate”, “beautiful” and “tender”, while “other early reviewers… did not comment at any length on the expression of a national identity given the works clear dialogue with Dvorak” (Shadle 255).  It was striking that many of the quotes, whether positive or negative, couldn’t help but mention Beach’s gender in relation to the music, while “the most negative critics displayed heightened anxiety over the emergence of a truly valid American symphonic voice capable of speaking to international audiences” (Shadle 255).  This is what people had been hoping for in the ‘great American symphony’; however, for some, the fact that this voice was coming from a woman was the sole thing rendering the attempt invalid.

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”, I. Allegro con fuoco:

https://stolaf.naxosmusiclibrary.com/mediaplayer/playfer.asp?br=320&tl=75616

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”, I. Adagio- Allegro molto

https://stolaf.naxosmusiclibrary.com/mediaplayer/player.asp?br=320&tl=371713

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, I. Allegro sostenuto:

https://stolaf.naxosmusiclibrary.com/mediaplayer/player.asp?br=320&tl=260155

Chadwick purportedly told Beach after her symphony’s debut, “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine new work by any one of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you will or not—one of the boys” (Block).

American music has a long history of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.  When we think about American music, we must also stop to think about who’s experiences we are validating and invalidating.  Who are we letting participate and why?  We cannot tout the idea of an American “melting pot” of musical culture if different groups are not all respected equally.

 

Works Cited:

Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”

Block, Adrienne Fried, and E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online.  October 16, 2013. Oxford University Press. Date of access 16 Oct. 2019,

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Douglas Shadle, Orchestrating the Nation

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”

“Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors.” Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors, https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/.

 

Marketing ‘Selves’ and ‘Others’: How a Biased Recording Process Divided Bluegrass

In our last class, we talked about the role of the record company and consumerism in the separation of bluegrass into its racially differentiated sub-genres.  I wanted to delve deeper into the idea, exploring the different ways recording and preserving music prioritized some identities and invalidated others within the genre as well as the way that marketing shaped these newly conceived identities.

Willie McTell, with 12 string guitar, hotel room, Atlanta, Ga.                                                        “A prolific musician, McTell had recorded not only 12-bar blues (in the so-called Piedmont style), but also ballads, spirituals and contemporary gospel tunes, songs from minstrelsy and vaudeville, rags, hillbilly songs, and tunes of traditional origin” (Nunn 265)

Despite bluegrass’s transracial origins, the history of the genre has been mired in essentialism and exclusion.  As we could see from Erich Nunn’s article and the “Monologue on Accidents”, folklorists like John Lomax, who were attempting to preserve the traditions of southern ‘folk’, asked specific questions of their African American informants to influence what types of songs were recorded:  

[The informant] McTell’s proffering a spiritual instead of the “complaining song” Lomax asks for speaks volumes about the uncomfortable relationship between white collector and black informant. So, too, does his insistence on the spiritual’s universality in the face of Lomax’s rather startlingly insensitive demand for a racially specific song of social protest (Nunn 267).

This is significant in that Lomax, whose supposed motive is to record authentic moments of music-making in southern society, asks pointed questions to certain informants in order to create and control the image he was to preserve, therefor undermining the original goal of the project.

Another factor in the division of bluegrass is the record companies that were recording the genre for entertainment purposes.  The common practices of marketing the same groups under “hillbilly” and “race record” labels in order to cater to perceived racial differences and turning away groups who didn’t conform to ‘their’ genre are more attempts at controlling, curating and marketing the images of ‘selves’ and ‘others’:

The record companies had the power, and they wielded it at will – as Ralph Peer himself was quoted saying in 1959, “I invented the Hillbilly and the Negro stuff.” Except, of course, that he didn’t say ‘negro’  (Giddens).

While the motives of the folklorists and record executives were different, what they have in common is that the bias of the person behind the recording equipment always shines through.  These disingenuous recording practices changed the face of bluegrass due to the misattribution of certain styles to different groups and the erasure and ‘othering’ of music created and performed by racially diverse groups, who have just as much ownership over the style as their white counterparts.

It is important for us to learn more about this complex history, as the consequences of this division are still at play in current music, and there are still efforts made to suppress diverse artists in today’s charts.  We, as informed listeners, should do more research into these issues and understand when bias could be introduced in any step of the music-making process.

 

Works Cited

Blind Willie McTell, with 12 String Guitar, Hotel Room, Atlanta, Ga.

Nunn, E. (2009). COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK. Criticism, 51(4), 623-649.

Giddens,Rhiannon.“Community and Connection,” Keynote Speech at 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference.

Stimeling, Travis.“Ken Burns’ Country Music does Little to Tell the Story of the Non-White, Non-Straight World of Country,” 15 September 2019.

The Choctaw Hymn Book and Native American Hybrid Music

While we weren’t able to take much time on it, I was intrigued by the article we looked at in class on Native American hybrid music.  In my research, I happened upon the names of a few hymn books, but the one that interested me the most was the Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso of the Choctaw.  I was also able to find corresponding letters from the missionaries who had shared their hymns with them, which I found interesting.  

 

[1]

Missionary Paragraphs [2]

misc. Choctaw hymn alphabet [3]

The hybridization of Native American music and Christian hymnody adds complexity to the oftentimes oversimplified narrative of the erasure of Native American culture.  While the Choctaw welcomed the missionaries and adopted the tradition of hybridized music, other groups reluctantly converted, and “…people [who] had initially pretended to convert in order to survive, went on to ask, ‘At some point, did we forget we were pretending?’”[4] Such practices oftentimes came about through generations of forced acculturation; however, for some groups, they were accepted into the culture, expanded upon with original works and have been ingrained within their practices to the point of becoming a part of their musical tradition. 

While we’ve been talking in class about the “Vanishing Indian” trope in the context of 19th century classical music, I believe the same ideas of misplaced nostalgia and oversimplification are prevalent today and relevant to the delegitimization of modern Native American culture.  As hinted at in some of the letters above, Choctaw were thought to be more receptive to conversion due to the available access of their language in printed form. This aspect might have aided in their conversion; however, it also aided in the preservation of their language and the transmission of what is now seen by them as their own traditional music.  The collection and performance of these hymns, original and translated, have helped the Chactaw maintain its ethnic identity through frequent meetings and the continued use of native language [5]. While these hybrid forms were born out of the gruesome history of Native American genocide and cultural erasure, to invalidate this living tradition due to its western sound is, in my opinion, just as problematic as the commodification of a curated characterization of what this music ‘should’ sound like.

  1. Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso : Choctaw Hymn Book. Richmond, Va: N.p., 1872. Print.
  2. MISSIONARY PARAGRAPHS.: AGENCY TO THE MEDITERRANUEAN. BOOKS IN THE CHEROKEE LANGUAGE. HYMNS IN THE CHOCTAW LANGUAGE. BOOKS IN THE SENECA LANGUAGE. (1829, Nov 13). Christian Watchman (1819-1848), 10, 1.
  3. MISCELLANEOUS.: CHAHTA VBA ISHT TALOA. CHOCTAW HYMN BOOK, 18MO, PP. 84. BOSTON: CROCKER & BREWSTER. ALPHABET. (1831). American Annals of Education (1830-1839), 1(11), 537.
  4. “Musical Interactions.” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3 – The United States and Canada. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. Routledge (Publisher), 2000. 510-20. Music Online: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Database. Web. 
  5. STEVENSON, G. W. (1977). The Hymnody Of The Choctaw Indians Of Oklahoma (Order No. 7802869). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302857576).