Music department embraces global music

Students in the “Javanese Gamelan” class participate in the extracurricular “Javanese Gamelan Suprabanggo,” a traditional Indonesian music ensemble.
Students in the “Javanese Gamelan” class participate in the extracurricular “Javanese Gamelan Suprabanggo,” a traditional Indonesian music ensemble.

With a growing focus on global music, Yale’s Department of Music is continuing its decades-long effort to diversify its curriculum.

Since its founding, the department has boasted a strong Western music curriculum, but compared to its peer institutions, Yale’s program in ethnomusicology — the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in global contexts — has lagged behind, Director of Undergraduate Studies Patrick McCreless said. But this fall, the department began to accept its first graduate students specializing in ethnomusicology, and over the past 14 years has hired ethnomusicologists, increased its offerings in world music and instituted world music requirements.

“The institution of a graduate track represents the end point in a several-years-long period of expanding the ethnomusicological component of the department,” said Michael Veal, the first ethnomusicology professor who was hired in 1998 and specializes in African, African-American and Caribbean music.

Sarah Weiss, the department’s other ethnomusicology professor who was hired in 2005 and specializes in Southeast Asian and East Asian music, said that although the field has existed formally in United States academia since the 1930s and originated in 19th-century Europe, Yale has lagged behind schools such as Wesleyan University, Harvard University, Columbia University and UCLA since the 1950s, McCreless said. McCreless explained that Yale’s traditional focus on the Western classical tradition may have been a stumbling block.

“The problem is that you have to have the library to support [ethnomusicology] — infrastructure that will support something other than the Western classical tradition,” McCreless said. “This school has always been a canonical school.”

Before the department hired Veal and Weiss, other faculty members had occasionally taught ethnomusicology on an ad hoc basis, McCreless said. Now, Veal and Weiss regularly offer classes such as “Music of Sub-Saharan Africa” and “Javanese Gamelan.” The Indonesian music class allows students to participate in “Gamelan Suprabanggo,” an on-campus Javanese Gamelan ensemble headed by Weiss that plays traditional Indonesian music with instruments including metallophones, gongs, stringed instruments, flutes and drums in addition to vocals.

The Music Department requires students to take one course in world music, McCreless said. “Topics in World Music,” while an introductory course, has a specific focus each year on one region, based on which professor is teaching it. Last semester, Veal taught the class with a focus on Western African and South African music.

Although the department’s ethnomusicology offerings are limited to the regions Veal, Weiss, and occasional visiting professors specialize in, any world music course teaches students a different methodology than what they would gain from a study of only Western classical music. Ethnomusicologists often “talk to real people about real music,” Weiss said, adding an anthropological element to the study of music in addition to a wider range of cultures.

“Music is such an important part of so many people’s lives, so [world music] is a potent vehicle for fostering global awareness,” Veal said.

World music and ethnomusicology also enhances students’ focus on classical music, Weiss said, explaining that without world music, classical music students would not have the perspective needed to understand their own musical interests deeply.

Many of the students in “Javanese Gamelan Suprabanggo” are interested in the fusion between Western and non-Western traditions, Weiss added. The two ethnomusicology students admitted to the graduate program this year are pursuing ethnomusicology as a lens for viewing Western art traditions and theories, she said. Students attracted to Yale’s Music Department have traditionally been interested only in Western classical music and no undergraduates currently focus on world music or ethnomusicology, McCreless said.

But three music majors interviewed said they enjoyed the major’s global requirement. Two said world music both broadened their cultural perspective and taught them anthropological and sociological methods they would not have learned from other music courses.

Although initially skeptical, Rachel Glodo ’13 said the course was one of her favorites at Yale. The course used African history to explain musical developments and offered hands-on experience with African bells and drums, she said. It even taught her new ways of transcribing music, such as weaving a musical piece into a quilt, she added. Her final paper on the African origins of the Appalachian banjo tradition in the U.S. explored the “transmission of musical ideas on an individual level,” she said.

“These weren’t high ideas among musicologists or theorists,” Glodo said.

Alex Vourtsanis ’14 said most music majors have grown up with “Western culture in Western households,” so it makes sense that world music classes take a broader cultural and historical approach to make up for students’ lack of knowledge of these cultures.

The department’s world music curriculum has also helped integrate music majors and students of other disciplines, McCreless said. Javanese Gamelan ensembles, for example, has been popular on college campuses since the 1960s because well-trained musicians and non-musicians alike can participate, he said. Veal and Weiss said their classes have students from African Studies, African American Studies and Southeast Asian Studies.

The department will focus on expanding on its current model in the near future — generating more interest in ethnomusicology, hosting lectures on world music and bringing in temporary specialists to teach courses — though it is unlikely to hire more ethnomusicologists in the near future due to budget constraints and the department’s size, McCreless said.

“There is always room for more ethnomusicology — students should lobby for it,” Weiss said. “I think the department is committed to representing world music.”

The Music Department currently has 36 declared majors.

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