The sounds emanating from Professor Sarah Weiss’s laptop are difficult to describe.
“It’s like water droplets being played,” she says, referring to the bell-like timbre of the tuned drums. “And then there’s this squeaky little oboe-type thing, and then there’s this mainland, Southeast Asian tiny cymbaline,” she adds, speeding up her description (and pantomime) to match the playful accelerando of the track.
Weiss explains that we’re listening to a New York-based percussion ensemble called Bang on a Can, with musical guest Kyaw Kyaw Naing.
“I’m sorry, who?” I ask. Professor Weiss is already handing me the CD jacket.
“It’s pronounced ‘Chaw Chaw Nang,’” she adds, pointing to the cover. “You wouldn’t guess from how it’s spelled!”
Now that I’ve got the name down, “What kind of drums are these, exactly?” I ask.
“This is the Pat Waing. ‘Pat’ means ‘ensemble.’ So wait,” she says, finding herself confused. “Is it the ensemble or the instrument? Hang on.” Wasting no time, she turns to her laptop and pulls up the website listed on the back of the jewel case.
“Ah, here, see? Pat Waing is the same as Hsaing Waing, which are both the name of the music and the drums.” A miniscule amount of time and one website later, we have a captioned photo to look at. “See? ‘The Hsaing Wang are the traditional Burmese drum circle instrument,’” she reads from the screen, following the words with a demonstrative pointer finger. Leaning back into her chair, she adds, “Aren’t they beautiful?”
The entire interaction speaks volumes about Weiss, who teaches world music (or, as she insists, “musics”). What she knows, she is overjoyed to explain; what she doesn’t, she must learn immediately.
Professor Weiss, who earned her Ph.D. in musicology from NYU (she had intended to study 19th-century literature, but, as she says, “then I became interested in people who are alive,”) is probably best known on campus for being “the gamelan professor.” Though gamelan, a set of Indonesian percussion instruments, is not all she teaches at Yale (she has taught, and will teach again in 2009, Music 150: Music Cultures of the World), the gamelan is the reason we’re listening to Bang on a Can at all. Both she and Evan Zyporin, the frontman of the group, teach gamelan at their respective schools (he teaches at MIT).
“What he said was that before he started using Balinese music in his work, he wasn’t happy with his own compositions. Only when he brought the two together did he find his voice.”
This idea of incorporation has been on Weiss’s mind lately, as she has been asked to travel to China to give a lecture on the issue of authenticity in music.
“Here’s something I’ve been thinking about,” she adds over the now-frenetic track. “If you go to Bali to hear Balinese music, who do you want to be playing it? A native Balinese, not someone else, so that it’s authentic, right?”
“But does that mean nobody else can play Balinese music?”
“See the problem? And I don’t know what to do about that.”
Leaving me deeply confounded, she surges onward. “People who work in music that isn’t, quote unquote, ‘their own’ have to work against that. You can bring in Balinese people and upgrade your authenticity, or you can ignore it, and just bash on. I think that’s the same process that hundreds and hundreds of pop musicians go through.”
Speaking of pop music, I suddenly realize I have a song on my computer directly related to what Weiss has been contemplating. I am overjoyed by the chance to give her something to think about, now that she’s completely melted my brain.
“I have this bhangra song that Jay-Z rapped over, I don’t remember what it’s called, let me find it…” I say, plodding through my iTunes and realizing, to my shame, that I am far slower on my own computer than she is on hers.
“Oh! Are you going to play me ‘Mundian To Bach Ke?’ I have that! [By] Panjabi MC? Do you have the original? I have it. Do you want it?”
And here I was thinking I’d surprise her with an early 2000s radio hit.
“They’re British, did you know that?” (I did not.) “Have you heard ‘Buzzin’?’ You can really hear their accents on that song. Oh, it’s such a cute song. Listen to them!”
We spend a moment listening, but it’s only a matter of seconds before Weiss can’t contain herself. “‘Trapped in a buzzle, floatin’ on a fizz?’ So cute.’”
But Professor Weiss doesn’t want her music to dominate the discussion. She wants to know what music I’ve brought her. Actually, specifically, she wants to know, “What are the indie kids into these days?”
I pick her something relatively palatable, if not über-recent: “Sons and Daughters” by The Decemberists.
Four measures go by. Then eight. Then sixteen. Professor Weiss is really, really listening, nonexistent beard in hand and everything. Then: “The bass note hasn’t changed the whole piece.” I laugh, realizing she’s right, and now I’m totally embarrassed that I’ve ever liked this song at all. “I could play this,” she adds. “If I could play it, it can’t be that good.”
Ashamed that I’ve played her something so… pedestrian (what was I thinking?), I take the next logical step: “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead.
“Can you figure out what meter this is in? This drove me crazy,” I ask, throwing down the proverbial gauntlet.
Again she listens. Four bars go by. Eight. Now sixteen. She declares, “Five and a half,” meaning that if a quarter note receives one beat, each measure of the song contains five and a half total beats. I didn’t even know that meter existed, but she’s still not right.
“Nope, try again,” I say, unsuccessfully concealing a smirk.
“Is it rubato and just not written in?”
“No, hang on, let me skip to the part with the drums.”
We listen again.
“I give up. What is it?”
“It’s in four four, but the accent changes on different sixteenth notes. Isn’t that annoying?”
“Oh, I see!” Professor Weiss begins humming along to the melody and tapping her foot along to the cymbals, which clearly mark all four beats of the measure. “Man, you’ve gotta send me that. I like that. Plus there’s a guy in this department who’s convinced that everything comes down to Radiohead.”
Touché, Professor Weiss. Looks like we both have something to think about now.