Posts Tagged ‘ethnomusicology’

Béla Bartók is not just known as a composer, of course. He also plays a prominent role in the history of ethnomusicology.

In fitting with the transitional tendencies of the 1900-1920 period, a moment that served as a hinge between Romantic aesthetics and the “real” twentieth century, Bartók was not given entirely to exoticized representations of folk music – a Romantic compositional trait – but neither was he a fully-formed ethnomusicologist in the modern sense of the term. (Indeed, the field as we know it today did not exist then.) While concerned with documenting the oral traditions of his native lands, he was also interested in hunting for material that could then be synthesized into new music. Bartók’s is a very new sort of relationship with folk sources, in fact, one that attempts to both capture a foreign music in all of its raw “authenticity” (including some of the earliest real field recordings we have – see picture below), but also to put it to good use in the creation of a national, not to mention personal, style. In this way, Bartók could be simultaneously rooted in native folk history while also being uncompromisingly “modern” (in the broader, cosmopolitan sense of the term).

This approach was amazingly prescient. By synthesizing the literate Western tradition with the music of variously-defined others, composers could walk a middle path in an increasingly binarized field of musical production, a field that became even more split with the meteoric rise of popular music. Neither fully academically modernistic, nor “authentically” folksy or popular, this stylistic path is betwixt and between. Indeed, there is a bit of Bartók in Gershwin’s operatic evocations of 1920s Charleston; Messiaen’s ornithological fieldwork (really a form of zoomusicology); Takemitsu’s dabblings with shakuhachi and biwa; Lou Harrison’s “American gamelan”; Reich’s visits to Ghana; Bolcom’s poly-stylistic mashes; and Golijov’s klezmer and Afro-Cuban influenced pieces, among countless examples. Indeed, Bartók seems to have inaugurated the era of the composer-ethnomusicologist.



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Music is the silence between notes. — Claude Debussy

It could easily be a stanza from Basho (or at least a snippet from Cage’s zen-inspired lectures).

In La Mer, Debussy drew inspiration from the famous Edo-period woodblock print by Hokusai showing match-stick boats being tossed violently between monstrous waves. It’s a striking, kinetic, tumultuous image; it’s also highly naturalistic and, in a quintessentially Japanese way, defined as much by its negative space as by the turbulent action depicted. Debussy even went as far as to include a part of this image on the cover of the 1st edition of the score (below).

Debussy’s fascination with the East, particularly Japan and Indonesia, seems to be of a different sort than the exoticized thrill that surrounded much of the 19th century’s engagement with “the Orient.” Indeed, Debussy’s aesthetic orientation resonated deeply with the music and visual arts of Japan and, although to my knowledge the composer never attempted a style japon, his “glue-less” musical language bears striking similarities to the traditional Japanese arts.

Much of Debussy’s music eschews forward-thrusting, teleological development in favor of a static, sensual present. He courted stillness in a way that rubbed up against the maximalist tendencies of some of his (non-Gallic) contemporaries. In Japanese, this sensibility towards space is called ma (間), and can be seen everywhere from ukiyoe woodprints to garden design, flower arranging (ikebana) to shakuhachi music. It was a sensibility that Debussy shared.

In addition, the composer was exquisitely sensitive to tone color; a piece like La Mer employs a broad, subtle timbral palette that is, in many ways, much more spatial/environmental than structural. This too has an analog in Japanese music. The shakuhachi honkyoku tradition, for example, is carefully attuned to the aesthetics of “the single tone.” Rather than focusing on the relational “glue” binding phrases and sections within each honkyoku piece, players focus on sound itself as the most important single parameter of the music. This attitude is best summed up by the adage ichion joubutsu (一音成仏), “with one sound, one attains Buddha-consciousness.” In other words, the sound’s the thing, not the syntax. This idea probably would have resonated with Debussy, who once remarked that he loved development sections during symphony concerts because they gave him an opportunity to go out and enjoy a cigarette.

[To give you a sense of the timbral richness and variety of the shakuhachi, I’ll close with a video of one of my favorite honkyoku pieces, shika no tone (“The distant cry of deer”), performed by the masters Aoki Reibo and Yamaguchi Goro.]

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Up until around the year 1550, sacred music makes up the vast majority of what we study as musicologists. (This isn’t, of course, because people were only singing sacred music until then – sacred music just happens to have been notated and passed down more efficiently than its secular counterpart.) All of the beautiful chant, motets, masses, chorales, Lutheran cantatas, etc. that RT has been discussing for the last 1,400 or so pages were “use” music; they were created and performed for specific functions, and context was everything. This, indeed, was why the music registered as sacred: with settings of Scripture and an indispensable role in ritual and worship, sacred music confirmed, embodied, and celebrated the core tenets of the faith.

As we move into the 19th century, however, a new form of sacred music is emerging. Ironically, the ever increasing secularization of music in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a “sacralization” of the arts in the 19th. This cultural process is fascinating and really complex, the dual prerequisites for a bloated, unreadable post. For that reason I’ll be taking a stab at addressing a few of the major points to consider in a series of short posts. This is by no means meant to be comprehensive, so please jump in with thoughts and links to help flesh these ideas out! That said, let’s dive right in…

If sacralization implied inhibition of spontaneous performer behavior, that is nothing compared with the constraints that were imposed on audiences, who were now expected (and are still expected) to behave in concert halls the way they behaved in church.   (II, 651)

Traditionally, musicologists have focused their work on (at the risk of sounding obvious) the music itself, while tending to downplay the social history of listening in which the great works find themselves situated. RT has gestured towards this issue numerous times throughout the text, from descriptions of the carnival atmosphere of opera seria performances to reminders that the great masses of Josquin would have been heard in chunks over the course of the ritual, not in its totality as a “work,” as it is today.* As we’ve seen (and commented upon), prior to the period we’re now moving into, music was “functional” and, as such, served a fundamentally social purpose, binding communities together, enhancing religious ritual, and enlivening parties. During the 19th century, however, listening practices in Europe and America began to gradually shift in ways that, in hindsight, turned out to be quite profound.

Audiences throughout the 19th century and into the 20th were more and more expected to listen in captivated, silent awe, rather than the more social, distracted concert culture of yore. The dark, quiet cocoon of the modern concert hall is, indeed, a result of these shifts. Where once religion served the socially sanctioned role as the site of mystical transcendence and ritual, now this experience came to be associated with high art and the Geniuses who created it. The secular had become the sacred.

Of course, the silencing of the concert hall was a very gradual process that occurred unevenly around the globe. For instance, critic George Templeton Strong, writing in New York in 1858, describes the audience at a Phil concert as “crowded and garrulous, like a square mile of tropical forest with its flock of squalling paroquets [sic] and troops of chattering monkeys.” By the early 20th century, however, the near-total subjugation of noisy concert-going behavior seems to have been more or less complete. Even conductors were in on the policing of noise in the service of creating a reverential, indeed sacred space for performance. Pierre Monteux, for example, rapped on the podium with his baton to silence the audience; Koussevitzky folded his arms and quietly, condescendingly waited. Leopold Stokowski was perhaps the era’s strictest silence enforcer: he would actually stop conducting mid performance to lecture the audience on “unnecessary noise,” which included applause: “Don’t talk, don’t rattle your programs, just listen noiselessly.**

Any classical music lover today knows the drill. And in many ways this is absolutely for the good; some writers tend to wax nostalgic for the chattery old days, but we’ve all sat next to a whispering couple and we know how annoying this can be. Further, many works written in the last 200 years were designed for precisely this sort of a space; a composer in 1700 probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to open an opera with a PPP drone, like Wagner does in Das Rheingold. It probably would have been inaudible.

The sacralization of the performance hall, a process with roots in the 19th century and the Romantic aesthetic, was fundamentally tied to new ways of understanding the individual, a subject I hope to take up in another post. It was less about the public, social experience of music and more about the interiority of listening, the individual, subjective contemplation of sublime works. (Stokowski even had plans for a “Temple of Music,” complete with pitch-black listening chambers for each individual in the audience.) In the age of iPods and noise-canceling headphones, this sort of disembodied, individualized listening might seem completely natural. Most music listening in modern society is indeed solitary. We would do well to remember that this is a wild historical aberration; for most of history, and for many in the world today, music is fundamentally about people, bodies, sociality, sharing. The sacralization of listening elevated the status of music profoundly; it also created a distance between the holy masterworks and the isolated individuals listening to them.

(For more on this, see Alex Ross’s spectacularly interesting post here.)

* A couple of great sources that deal with this question: Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow; James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris; Christopher Small, Musicking.

** See Levine, 180-192.

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Upon hearing the second movement of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony (No. 100), one critic wrote of the “hellish roar of war increasing to a climax of horrid sublimity!”[1] It is difficult to fathom that this polite, classical symphony could be considered “hellish” and “horrid” sounding, conditioned as we jaded moderns are to music of a far more hellish affective character. Once you’ve heard Beethoven’s 9th, Götterdämmerung, The Rite of Spring, and 95% of new music since 1920 – not to mention the popular music spawn of hell, death metal – it is hard not to hear Haydn’s symphony as tame, even bordering on quaint. Have our ears changed that much in the intervening 200+ years since the Military Symphony debuted to rollicking success? In this regard, it has. The musical representation of fear, war, terror, and the enemy – what our 18th century reviewer called “horrid sublimity” – has morphed considerably from the contained Enlightenment aesthetic to today’s (post-)modern ethos, influenced as it is by expressionism, psychological realism, and Artaudian cruelty. Listening to Haydn’s symphony vividly demonstrates the historical variability of musical signs.

The first movement of the Military Symphony features a light, galloping rhythmic pattern (long-short-short) that is all energy, momentum, and drive. Affectively, the opening still carries strong connotations of a rousing adventure; it brings to mind “William Tell” and the “action music” sequences of the silent film era, conjuring images of square-jawed, bright-eyed men racing into the horizon on trusted steeds. There is a martial quality here as well, though not as blatant as in the next movement, which gives Symphony No. 100 its “Military” appellation.

As the allegretto opens, we get a sense that Haydn has eased back on the accelerator; while the first movement is full of motion and charge, this one begins with a moderately slow tempo and a dainty melody set to a dance-like rhythm. The theme is perfectly symmetrical, the very model of classical balance, and it conforms exactly to expectations; cadences are in the right places and harmonies move from one to the other in an orderly, predictable procession. Haydn is well known for his musical humor and his love of rhythmic tricks (think the “Surprise” Symphony, for instance), but there’s nothing at all unexpected about this opening. It is a portrait of musical civility and grace. And then come the Turks.

At 1:43, the C major of the placid opening is suddenly twisted into minor and the full ensemble enters forte with the opening material in the minor mode. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde element to this abrupt shift; it comes completely out of the blue, and with only one bar preparation (a descending minor triad in the low instruments), we go from the happy, stable ground of the opening to the invasion of the Ottoman army. Haydn draws upon an orchestrational novelty – an expanded battery of percussion instruments – to connote the Musselman hoards, particularly cymbals and triangle. It’s a wrenching transition, even to modern ears, although it must have been much more dramatic (and titillatingly terrifying) to the audiences of the late 18th century. The centerpiece of the movement, and indeed the whole symphony, is a gesture of musical orientalism, a portrait of the Other that is riddled with the semiotic codes of Turquerie (and let us not forget that Mozart dabbled in these codes as well). At 2:54, we’re back to the orderly, civilized opening theme in the major key, as if nothing had happened at all (or, if Dorothy was listening, “it was all just a dream!”). At 3:30, the percussion enters again, but the theme stays in the major mode. And at 4:43, another signifier of the military enters into the evolving musical narrative in a form of a (positively Mahlerian) solo bugle call. It seems the armies of Europe, and thus civilization, are on the march! At 4:55, the bugle cuts out and we hear a timpani roll crescendoing into a fortissimo Ab major (C in the bass), with full percussion support. This din is the “climax of horrid sublimity” referred to by the reviewer. Sabers rattle around us as we clash with the enemy in battle.

Haydn represents the enemy in this movement by means of musical exoticism. By dipping into the semiological pool of Turkish signifiers, he is able to tap into late 18th century anxieties about invaders from the south. The threat is presented, then promptly neutralized; we end the movement with full percussion, but all the fight has been drained from it, and it seems only to reinforce the opening materials, which serve as a musical representation of civility. There are two points during this movement that register the highest level of terror: when the Turkish percussion first enters and the melody suddenly lurches into the minor mode; and towards the end, when blaring tutti in a new key and rolling timpani (which was then considered a novel technique) conspire to make a warlike noise. In both instances, the threat quickly subsides. The enemy is safely contained.

At the heart of the difference between 18th century and modern representations of terror and the enemy is the question of aesthetic distance. There is a certain aloofness to the classical style; although Haydn shows us the raging Turks, he does so from a distance, placing a frame around the object of horror and allowing us to view the threat from afar, like zoo-going spectators watching the roaring lion from behind the reassuring comfort of a plexiglass wall. Audiences didn’t find the Military Symphony allegretto terrifying; they found it “deliciously terrifying.”[2] In other words, they always remembered that they were listening to a symphony, not a band of wild Turks; there was always a marked distinction between representation and reality. As Mozart put it in an oft-quoted letter, “music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music.”[3]

Here, in a nutshell, is the Enlightenment aesthetic of distance. A handful of years later, Kant published his Critique of Judgment, with its notion of “disinterested interest,” a classic formulation of this aesthetic principle. Terror and other extreme states were meant to be observed from a comfortable distance, not actually experienced. Both classical and modern representations of musical terror deal in the sublime, not in today’s sense of the word as “beauty,” but in the classical, Enlightenment understanding of the term – as overwhelming “awe.”[4] Yet the sublime is a moving target historically. What was “horrid sublimity” to Haydn and his contemporaries is practically cute today. The horror of warfare remains today what it was millennia ago; brutal, nauseating, and dumb. The way we represent these eternal conditions through music and the way we listen to sublime terror, however, have shifted profoundly since the 18th century. Terror itself is a universal; we just deal with it in different ways at different times. In Haydn’s day, the roaring lion would have been shot, taxidermized, and displayed for the public to gawk at; today, many people spend good money to view lions in person on safari. The lion is the same – the distance has changed.

[1] H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Volume III (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976-1980), 247.

[2] James Webster, “Haydn,” In New Grove Online, ed. Deane Root (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007-2010).

[3] Mozart, quoted in Richard Taruskin, “Resisting the Ninth,” 19th-Century Music 12/3 (Spring 1989), 249.

[4] For more, see ibid.

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Noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.  (II, 174)

It would be natural to assume that the scenario above refers to a sporting event. One can picture a gaggle of the privileged gossiping away about which noblewoman is in bed with which nobleman, noshing on treats, sharing the latest dirty joke, sipping wine and laughing. It’s like a baseball game today: you go for the camaraderie over hot dogs and beer and when you hear a sharp “crack,” you look down onto the field to see what just happened. It’s all about the socializing; the ostensible reason for the event is secondary.

Of course, there was no baseball in 17th/18th century Italy; instead, the landed classes amused themselves in the opera house. The passage above comes from Martha Feldman’s article “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” which meticulously describes the fascinating social milieu that existed around opera seria performances in the early 18th century. The performance halls were fully lit, giving spectators just as good a view of the other spectators than of the stage. People came to see and be seen, to chat amongst themselves, and to eat. (Indeed, a standard item in the seria opera was the “sherbet aria,” a tune sung while audience members devoured their dessert.) The music was entirely incidental to the partying, which makes sense when one learns that patrons typically rented their opera boxes for the whole season, and a season consisted of only a few operas, each performed 20-30 times. After the first couple of performances, audiences would be familiar enough with the plot and the music to mentally check out and still know what’s going on. When the virtuoso castrato onstage begin belting his signature tune, audiences would stop their conversations to enjoy a moment of music.

Taruskin comments that there is nothing in today’s world of classical music similar to this sort of socio-musical event. (One would have to go to a bar with a bad cover band for something resembling the opera seria culture.) Indeed, he likens it more to today’s TV set, which passively lights up the background to so many peoples’ lives (II, 175). It is used less for concentrated recreation than it is for distracted ambiance. To the modern person, steeped as we are in the 19th century idea of darkened concert halls, sublimity and transport, and the private contemplation of musical art, the opera seria can seem more like circus than Kultur. The carnivalesque element is perhaps what makes seria such a marginal player in today’s repertory, but it also makes it queerly fascinating.

Prof. Mitchell Morris likes to tell his undergrads that one reason why the 20th century has so few fantastic operas is that, to write an opera that truly “works,” the composer has to “have the courage to be boring.” When you’re dealing with a musical form that can easily stretch for 3 or more hours, a composer needs to “let the audience go,” to free them up for staring blankly at the ceiling, checking their iPhones, and people watching. One does not have the cognitive capacity to deal with hours straight of concentrated brilliance; they need some mental downtime. In the 20th century, only the courageous composer has the guts to be boring.

It might be easy to forget this today, but distracted listening has a long and distinguished history in the western art music tradition (not to mention all the rest of human musical cultures out there). You could receive a dirty look for coughing in some esteemed concert halls today, but throughout most of music history, the coughing, distracted, socializing audience member was the norm, not the decorum-destroying exception. This is perhaps what makes opera seria so interesting – it is so utterly different from what we think of opera now. Taruskin lowers the curtain: “.. it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it” (II, 176).

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A long time ago in a land far, far away…

When Mozart wrote music, he never made a mistake – it was as if he was taking dictation from God. Sensing his pending death, he composed a Requiem Mass for himself. Such are the lives of the great composers.

Legends like these are nothing new to music. (Recall the first notated repertory, plainchant, and the dove whispering in Gregory’s ear.) With Josquin and Palestrina, we can see the same mythologizing forces at work: after Josquin’s death, he was turned into a larger-than-life Genius, an emissary of God expressing perfection through sound; Palestrina was turned into the literal savior of music when his Missa Papae Marcelli wowed counter-reformation church officials. Were it not for Palestrina, the Pope would have tossed the whole messy affair of music into the wastebasket of history.

The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl has written a number of playful articles and books examining western music from the perspective of an outsider (an “ethnomusicologist from Mars” in one memorable piece).* While we may like to think of ourselves as a purely rational, scientific culture, our tendency to mythologize our great musicians is profound. Ask the average student in the average music department about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven and you’re bound to get a colorful potpourri of fact and fiction. (Ask the average person on the street and you’re bound to get a blank stare.) Beethoven is the great mad genius of music, with an Einsteinian explosion of hair, deaf as a doornail, pounding out tormented, brilliant music on the piano. How many times have we seen this representation in movies, TV, and cartoons? Mozart, likewise, is less a historical figure than he is a Force. With every generation, myths are kept alive and reinforced through Mother Culture; the movie Amadeus, for instance, has done a tremendous amount of cultural work to keep the Mozart myth flourishing. According to Nettl, the way our culture transforms the great dead composers is really no different from the origin myths of the Blackfoot Indians, in whose mythology the beaver is the bringer of music. When in comes to the great musicians of the past, Taruskin’s often-quoted Italian proverb holds: “Not true, perhaps, but well invented.”

It’s a curious case. Perhaps our propensity to elevate (dare I say deify) great artists after their death is a reason why living composers are such a rarity on concert programs. Music and musicians must be transmogrified into myth before they can be counted in the pantheon of the truly great and eternal. You can’t very well mythologize a living person – too much warm blood is anathema to legend. Therefore, the dead receive more attention than the living. Remember: six months ago, Michael Jackson was a washed-up kook; today, he’s the tortured genius of pop.

The discipline of musicology might not be as death-fixated, but we have our myths as well. Who hasn’t gasped in shock at the story of the legendary Susan McClary standing in front of an AMS crowd, likening Beethoven’s 9th to rape? (The original comment was quite a bit more ambiguous, and it appeared  in the Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter, hardly the hornet’s nest of an AMS conference.) Who hasn’t heard about Richard Taruskin’s legendary graduate courses, where he assigns between 500-800 pages of reading (in a handful of different languages) per week? Who doesn’t know about the two reckless grad students attempting to read all of the OHWM and – foolishness of foolishness – blog about it!

* Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Champagne/Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1995).

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When discussing a musical tradition that is quite foreign to one’s own, it’s only natural to draw comparisons to what is known and understood. Putting the alien into a familiar context can help open up the proverbial windows and get some light in the room. Saying something like “troping is the same as sampling” is of course a crude oversimplification, but at its root, this thought betrays the perception of sameness (that is, familiarity) that can shoot through centuries and cultural differences. Critical comparisons like these can help one to form conceptual bonds with the past or with other cultures.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many of our discussions on the blog so far have drawn parallels to our present musical landscape. This has been done in the spirit of playfulness and fun, but also to help put the pieces together and make meaning out of traditions that are long gone. I can’t help it – when I think about tropes, hip-hop production is the first thing that comes to mind. A big part of the reason why I think we’ve been drawing so many parallels to today is that music from the Middle Ages often has more in common with predominantly oral, “popular” lineages than it does with canonical Western art music. It makes sense to take a more ethnomusicological approach to this topic, therefore. In many ways, chant and secular music from this era share more with folk music, pop songwriting, and yes, hip-hop, than they do with Beethoven.

As Taruskin reminds us, orality and literacy have always been engaged in a complex pas de deux through the centuries. Even though notational technologies were available from around the 9th-10th centuries, music making remained primarily an oral tradition, and notated music simply attempted to capture what singers already knew. But at a certain point (or rather, many certain points), the pendulum swung towards literacy as the primary means of transmission.

To shift gears slightly, lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of composer anonymity and its role in shaping this repertory. Anonymity is fundamentally a trait of the oral tradition. In folk signing traditions, for instance, complex lineages of who learned a song from whom are often highly valued, but the origins of most songs are murky. In many (perhaps most) cultures around the world, songs are said to have been created by ancestors or the Gods. Some cultures view their song repertory as something that simply always has been. Similarly, most chant cannot be pinned down to a specific composer. Like the composition of the Indian ragas, Gregory was said to have received direct dictation from God. The idea of the “composer” didn’t really come about until the pendulum had swung a little more towards literacy.

For example, Hildegard’s music was elaborate, florid, and not always intuitive. There is little chance that her music would have been remembered and passed on in the same way as plainchant – it’s simply too difficult. Once music surpassed a certain threshold of technical complexity, notation became a much more valuable technology of transmission. Hildegard’s music was in many ways enabled by notation. Likewise, because it was affixed to a thing from the beginning, so too did her name enter the material record.

Oral traditions tend to value continuity more than innovation. One can certainly composer orally, as Taruskin wrote at the beginning of the volume, but is that composer going to be remembered? Indeed, is he going to even want to be remembered? In an oral paradigm, an individual’s unique contribution to the flowing river of music is  just a drop in an unchanging yet constantly moving tradition. No wonder we don’t have the names of many chant composers – they didn’t have the technology to pass their compositions down, of course, but just as important, they didn’t think like composers.

Literacy is one of the defining qualities of Western music (indeed, the defining characteristic according to Taruskin). But literacy also enabled an equally important concept, one that also defines Western music – the composer. We can see the faint stirrings of the composer concept now: fewer and fewer musical examples are anonymous as notation grew more precise and powerful. In a couple hundred years, composers will be well-known throughout their regions and in the employ of kings and churches. A couple hundred years after that, they will be the Gods.

[Addendum:] Continuing with our little tradition of bringing up current music in our discussions of the Middle Ages, the hip-hop practice of hiding one’s true identity through clever monikers is a fascinating phenomenon. All of these masks – many performers go under multiple aliases – fracture the concept of an individual composer/creator. In some ways, could we be returning to an oral, composerless paradigm?

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