Michael Chanan on “World Music”

by Thomas Brett

Sometimes the best writing on music is done not by specialists, but rather by people who might be called generalists with a view and taste for the big issues that musical experience so often seems to frame.  The English documentary filmmaker, writer, and teacher Michael Chanan is someone I would consider to be such a generalist.  Chanan has written three critically incisive yet accessible books on music: Repeated Takes (1995), Musica Practica (1996), and From Handel To Hendrix (1999).  (In an earlier blog post of mine, I drew on Musica Practica in my discussion of how music has meaning.)  There is a link to Chanan’s website under the “Connections” section on the right side of this blog page.

One of the most stimulating parts of Repeated Takes, Chanan’s history of music and recording technology, is its brief final chapter, “Global Corporations and ‘World Music’.”  While numerous ethnomusicologists and musicologists have, since the 1990s, written articles and books on the topics of globalization and the circulation of musics through recordings, Chanan’s chapter remains a useful jumping off point, I think, for getting us to consider some important issues. Here, Chanan examines the impact of recording and recordings on the production and circulation of ‘world music’ and makes four points in particular that are worth repeated takes from us.

First, Chanan presents a bird’s-eye view of how recording has impacted almost all of our world’s musics:

“What goes on every day without drawing political attention to itself is the progressive transformation of the musics of different cultures which the market blindly throws into contact with each other” (176).

This leads to his second point, which is a description of the kinds of things that happen when different musics collide, so to speak, with one another in their recorded forms:

“Under the impact of electro-acoustic reproduction, musical cultures of every type develop new dynamics.  Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce independently, in musical revenge against technological alienation.”

Then Chanan starts to ask questions about what it means that the musics of different cultures come into contact with one another, and indeed, are changed by one another:

“Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?”

“Is the idea just another form of cultural expropriation and exploitation or could it possibly represent a true growth of awareness of other musics?”

“Is there any real exchange involved?”

And perhaps most pressingly:

“Is it changing our musical consciousness?”

The possible answers to these questions–which Chanan doesn’t presume to know–leads him back to his bird’s-eye view and a wondering aloud about the place of music (recorded or otherwise) in our lives.  He wonders about “which forms of music are signs of social health, and which are symptomatic of alienation, frustration and resentment” and if music–through its global circulation on recordings–“is becoming denuded or truly being democratized?” (177).

At the very least, this is the kind of writing that makes you take a moment to think about your own mediated listening practices and about how you use music and how it seems to affect you.

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