Deciphering Culture

!! CALLING ALL ETHNOMUSICOLOGISTS !!

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The Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology will hold its annual meeting on Saturday, March 2, 2013, at the University of San Francisco.

Proposals for papers, panel discussions, workshops, video screenings, or musical performances are being accepted until January 28, 2013. Please send a proposal of not more than 250 words to jeffreycallenphd@gmail.com

 

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

Kronos Quartet feature “Women’s Voices” / An Interview with Tanya Tagaq (@PopMatters)

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 This weekend (May 11 & 12, 2012), Kronos Quartet is presenting a program entitled Women’s Voices at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in Sn Francisco. One of the special guests is Inuit throat singer Tanya Taqaq. I’m taking this occasion to repost an interview of Taqaq  I did for PopMatters in 2010. One of my favorite interviews of the last few years, it’s also a good introduction to an innovative artist. If you happen to be in the Bay Area, seriously consider checking out this weekend’s show at YBCA.

Living Outside the Box: An Interview with Tanya Tagaq

By Jeffrey Callen 16 April 2010

My introduction to Inuit throat singing was a lecture by musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez on the semiology of katajjaq, the vocal game played by pairs of Inuit women standing close together, holding each other’s arms as they sing into each other’s mouths. I remember some striking video and audio clips, a lot of charts detailing Nattiez’s semiotic analysis and a feeling that something human and vital was being elided.

A decade later, when I first saw Tanya Tagaq on a podcast from the London International Festival of Exploratory Music, I didn’t think once of katajjaq or semiology. She isn’t that kind of Inuit throat singer and that kind of analysis would not get to the questions that I was interested in pursuing.

Born in the Nunavut Territory in the northernmost reaches of Canada, Tagaq taught herself Inuit throat singing during college in Halifax when she longed for the sounds of home. In the decade since, she has taken Inuit throat singing into previously unimagined musical arenas, working in hip-hop, hard rock and classical settings.

She has also worked with a diverse set of collaborators including Bjork, Mike Patton (of Faith No More) and the Kronos Quartet. In late January 2010, I interviewed Tanya Tagaq as she was about to begin a six-month tour of North America and Europe. During our conversation, Tagaq illuminated her approach to her craft, the sources of her inspiration, the relationship of her art to the Nunavut landscape/soundscape, and her ambitions.

On the last point—her ambitions—she eloquently stated what may be an underlying reason people are drawn to the experience of art: “…(to wake up to) the potential of what we’ve lost and what we can gain.” (To read more go to PopMatters).

Short Takes: Tracking Musical Taste — Trendsetting Cities

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Earlier this year, I prepared a literature review on changes in musical taste for a study commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony so the ephemeral subject of how musical tastes develop, shift, morph (choose a verb) is a little higher on my radar than usual. Discover Magazine recently published a quick summary of a research paper that maps the geographic flow of music on the social-networking music site Last.fm. There’s more to it than this but the researchers found that among American Last.fm users, Atlanta is the trendsetting city. There are some quibbles I have with how grand a conclusion you can make based on info. gathered from a single social media site but it’s interesting and they created some cool info graphics so I’d recommend checking it out: Which City Is the Musical Tastemaker for the US? Hint: Not NY or LA.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

May 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm

The limits of GPS: looking for a labyrinth on the edge of a cliff

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Labyrinth at Eagle's Point (Land's End, San Francisco)

In an earlier post (Tommy on the edge of a cliff), I wrote about the experience  of walking the labyrinth at Eagle’s Point in San Francisco’s  Golden Gate National Recreation Area. What I didn’t write about was the role technology  played in finding the location of the labyrinth, which is a user-created feature of the GGNRA and not officially acknowledged. As I wrote in “Tommy on the edge of a cliff,” a Google search located three labyrinths in San Francisco and I decided to visit the one at Eagle’s Point along the Land’s End trail where the bay meets the ocean. Before I left to drive across town, I plotted and saved the journey on Google maps on my trusty iPhone. Once I arrived at the trailhead, I relied upon the GPS function of the iPhone to find my way to Eagle’s Point.  I was surprised to find the trails in the GGNRA clearly marked on Google maps but quickly found that the GPS that works so seamlessly on city streets and freeways was out of its depth. The twists and turns of the trails made simple instructions—”take the next left”— seem meaningless and vague. What on later occasions would be a 20 minute walk turned into a circuitous 40 minute hike.

The conclusion I draw from this experience is not the inadequacy of GPS in non-urban settings but how completely the use of GPS has infiltrated  my approach to  finding  my way. I later found that the trail markers in the Land’s End area of the GGNRA clearly indicate the directions to Eagle’s Point and following them creates a much shorter  route to the labyrinth.

As a note: this post was inspired by the Omni Project of Portugal Consulting, “a self-funded study about the impact that digital technology is having on our lives.” Well worth checking out.

 

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

November 11, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Short takes: Insights on ethnography from Mimi and Eunice

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One of the dilemmas of ethnography is how to create a picture of the “now” of an event or experience that is not shaped by expectations or other unacknowledged (or unconscious) interpretations of the ethnographer. Bracketing ones reactions and biases is the classical anthropological technique to deal with such distortions. The effect of temporality on ethnography has not received the same degree of attention (with the exception of the work of Johannes Fabian). In tw0 recent strips, the ever-perceptive Mimi and Eunice present dilemmas presented by the temporal constraints of looking back on the “now.”


For an interesting exposition of the concept of mnemonic arbitrage go to the original post: Mnemonic Arbitrage.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

October 16, 2011 at 11:52 am

Tommy on the edge of a cliff

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Labyrinth at Eagle's Point (Land's End, San Francisco)

A labyrinth is not a maze. There is no intention to fool you: there is one way in and one way out. You simply follow the path to the center and then back out, a metaphorical equivalent to any number of spiritual traditions. Walking a labyrinth can be a walking meditation if you do it with intention.

Placing one foot in front of the other,

Gauging the distance as you frame the intention;

Taking the step, intention inseparable from action.

It falls into a rhythm, step after step, clearing the mind.

For the last  year, I have been working to rewire my brain in response to some neurological difficulties. Choosing alternative modalities of treatment in lieu of the bag of drugs the neurologist handed me, I made steady but uneven progress. Bodywork, meditation, exercise, music became part of my daily routine. Recently, my wife suggested I add labyrinth walking to my regimen: “I think if you walk a labyrinth once a week, you’ll be healed.” She described her experience walking a labyrinth and I decided to give it a shot. A Google search located three labyrinths in San Francisco and I decided to visit the one at Eagle’s Point along the Land’s End trail where the bay meets the ocean. A drive across town and a forty minute hike led me down the bluffs to a labyrinth perched on a cliff. I entered the labyrinth and tried to walk the path with singleminded intention. Maintaining the clarity to keep an even gait was harder than I imagined, especially when the outer circle of the labyrinth passed within three feet of the sheer drop to the rocks and water a hundred feet below. I followed the circuitous path to the center, stood for a while then retraced my steps out of the labyrinth.

Entrance to the labyrinth at Eagle's Point

I left the labyrinth refreshed and inspired, and a little mentally tired. A beautiful sunny day, the experience of walking the labyrinth on the edge of the cliff had left me with the feeling of possibilities.  A number of the healing modalities I’m using are  premised on the theory that brain waves need periodic recalibration. To me, walking the labyrinth was most like becoming absorbed in listening to a piece of music. Like deep listening to music, walking a labyrinth can take you away to another world and bring you back reoriented to this one.

Short Takes: Haruki Murakami on talent, focus & endurance

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Cover of "What I Talk About When I Talk A...

Cover via Amazon

 

 

If you’ve passed by Deciphering Culture with any regularity, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a serious fan of Haruki Murakami. The blog 99% posted a short piece on Murakami’s thoughts on the essential traits needed for successful as a novelist (excerpted from Muraakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The insights Murakami learned from running are applicable to all creative endeavors: you need talent, focus and endurance. An excerpt from the excerpt posted on 99% (Haruki-Murakami-Talent-Is-Nothing-Without-Focus-and-Endurance?).

 

…what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. Now matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal and make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it….

…the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it….

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed of the writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years….

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee results will come.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm

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