Music and the Nature/Culture Paradox

Submitted by Grace F. Donahue on Friday, 1/28/2011, at 2:31 PM

The question of how I situate myself in the beginning of this course could be answered by imagining two very distinct strands of interests in my life that have come full circle around me in the past year. My earliest and clearest memories are of people, music and what could be called “nature”. In effect, from a very young age I have been steeped in the material that gives form to the culture/nature paradox in anthropology. Although I do not currently play any instruments, I have been listening and engaging with music in many ways throughout my whole life. My parents' record collection was as important, if not more important, as a tool for my mental growth than our library. On the other hand, when I thought of academic interests throughout high school and the first few years of college, I never thought of music, but always of the social and natural sciences. These academic thoughts condensed into my current concentration which asks the very broad question of how environments impact and are impacted by people through the expressions and products of human cultures. At the same time, in my personal life I was equally interested in music and I spent a great deal of my time reading about and listening to music and running a radio show on campus.

It was only in the past semester, when I was abroad in Sydney, that I thought to combine my interests in order to narrow my concentration even further. My thinking was then reinforced by authors who made points similar to that which we just encountered in Sterne (2003:10): “At its core, the phenomenon of sound and the history of sound rest at the in-between point of culture and nature.” This can be taken in the direction Sterne heads, which is to argue that the physical process of hearing is an example of human technology, but it can also be taken in other directions: e.g. within discussions of how music can exist as a cultural representation of space as with Australian Aboriginal song-lines – a kind of musical map.

These ideas tie directly into my Australian ethnography project which looked at how people relate to music differently within different environments. You can see an example of these kinds of relations in the second and third videos of the John Cage performances from our first class. In the second video, the audience appears extremely conscious of the fact that they are observing a classical rendition of this piece, and their behavior reflects their knowledge of proper reactions within a traditional performance space. Their reactions are the performance however, so there is almost a self-sustaining mechanism taking place. The third video reflects assumptions within a different musical “culture” and performance space, however the behaviors are similar in that they can be ascribed to certain self-sustaining conceptions of how an audience at a rock concert should behave.  

In effect, I suppose my point is two-fold. First, I am coming to this class with a stronger academic background in anthropology and environmental science/ecology than in musical theory and practice. Second, that my focus within this class is largely upon how music is created and reinforced as a cultural tool for definition and redefinition of groups within space.


Taking Notes