Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation

By Keil, Charles | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation


Keil, Charles, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Turino, Thomas. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. xviii, 258 pp., glossary, references, annotated discography, index, CD.

Most years between 1969 and 1999 I taught either a one- or a two-semester course on Musics of the World from an anarchist and devolutionary perspective. From the egalitarian gathering societies thru the feudal societies to the present class societies, there has been a steady and disastrous decline in the quality and quantity of musicking per capita, was one argument. Many supposed technological "gains" represented a loss for musicking and for cultural and species diversity, was another. Further "progress" will deeper alienate and then kill us, a third. While Turino's views are more flexible, balanced, neutral, even neutered in places, I could have used this well-titled and well-written exposition of a "four fields" approach to sociomusicology as a cornerstone text for my "decline and fall of civilizations" course because he includes enough data on Zimbabwe, Peru, contradancing, Nazi Germany, and the civil rights movement to sustain both divergent hypothesis testing and radical (rooted) reinterpretation by any reader. Although I am a decade away from regular classroom teaching, I suspect this book will turn out to be a very concise and convenient cornerstone text for a variety of courses in diverse fields (sociology, history, performance studies, cultural studies, etc.) and just as useful in studies of Music the object, especially as recorded. A brief summary of contents follows.

Turino divides "live" musicking into "participatory" and "presentational"; he divides "recorded music" into "high fidelity" and "studio audio art." These four "fields" are largely configured from earlier scholarship and do not constitute the "brave and extremely original book" that Anthony Seeger blurbs on the back cover, but this is indeed a solid synthesis, a useful compilation and interweaving of insights from others, and a taxonomic/descriptive model that will stand up to a lot of pragmatic testing as it invites expanding. To be fair, Turino claims to offer no more than a useful and accurate taxonomy, a description, a useful model, and it is. Alan Merriam too, thought of his classic as a reasonably thorough compilation of what had been said, and it was. John Blacking knocked off a classic by putting music through a by then very familiar cultural relativism wringer. Perhaps great scholarship is like Tiv composing, "slow addition and quick subtraction"; not really much about bravery and originality at all.

Here is Turino testing his "four fields" on the Beatles trajectory:

The Beatles began as a participatory club dance band in their Hamburg days, changed to a presentational and high fidelity approach in their early days of fame, and created studio art in their later period-their musical style, modes of practice, and conceptualization of themselves as artists changing as they shifted fields, (p. 27)

Works for me. Each field helps to define the other three. As usual, I hear the Beatles as a devo or downward slide from the participatory joy of a danceable Chuck Berry/ Everly Brothers synthesis, only partially captured on records, to the decadent studio art of a declining capitalist empire in which producers and consumers conspire to delude each other with common worship of a commodity fetish. But another analyst could use the four fields framing vocabulary to describe an onward and upward maturation from "pop" to "great art," showing how the Beatles mastered each of the four fields, with their distinctive criteria for success, in turn.

The first three chapters-1. …

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