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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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What should we write: comparison of “A Great Joy Tonight” and “Music-Mission and Message” (part 1)

We went this morning to a small trip to Tel-Aviv. I went to buy Susan McClary’s book Feminine Endings which I ordered. This is one of the books that that every music lover should have at home. I left the store with this book and with two other books: Inbal Perlson, A Great Joy Tonight: Arab-Jewish Music and Mizrahi Identity (Tel-Aviv, Israel: Resling, 2006), and Michal Smoira-Cohn and Herzl Shmueli, Music: A Mission and Message (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2007).

In the post Call for papers “What there is and what there is not to read about music in Hebrew” I wrote that “I hope that the Israeli Musicological Association annual meeting will discuss not only what is not written, but also what should be written. Do we need more Schenkerian books in Hebrew that almost no one reads, or is there a more desperate need for books that might be of interest to a larger amount of readers?”

In this post I will compare the introductions of the two books in order to demonstrate the different goals of the writers and their relation to up-to-date research in other fields in Israel and music research in the world.

Music: A Mission and Message claims that “music is communication”. Michal Smoira-Cohen suggests that “the music moves from the producer [mashmia] and and listener [shomea]” The listener, she argues, feels a feeling of spiritual elevation if the got the “message”. She suggests that “music is in its entirety: emotional intelligence”. The music has a “mission”: it must reach the listener so that he or she could “internalize it and enrich his spiritual world”. The book, it is claimed, “is written out of a concern for the day of tomorrow and the fate [no more and no less] of music, which stands, this day, before a cross road.”

The argument presented in Music: A Mission and Message is problematic. Nicholas Cook wrote: “To understand music as performance means to see it as an irreducibly social phenomenon, even when only a single individual is involved… This observation derives its force from the extent to which the manifestly social practice of music has been conceptualized in terms of a direct and private communication from composer to listener. Because of this hierarchical communication model (one that reflects the traditional alignment of divine and human creation), even the everyday fact of divided authorship has been problematic for the musical academy.” [14], ‘Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance’

For Michal Smoira-Cohn and Herzl Shmueli Music is received “as if from a higher force, uplifted from man” (I guess she is speaking here about God although she if careful by using the words ‘as if’). For them, music is a message that is not being interpreted and influenced in any significant way by social and cultural circumstances. They suggest that music is an a-priori objective message that should be transmitted securely from God via the composer and performer, to the listener. It is very clear here who is active and who is passive; who is on top and who is under; who is ejaculating “the music” (the composer) and who is receiving it passively. In other words, music is not really being interpreted (in a sense that its “message” significantly changes as a result of this interpretation) it is transmitted. Its essence is left intact.

Performance becomes a passive act which has little affect on the “message” that should be transmitted faithfully to the listener. Otherwise, how can we save the world (or at least “the fate of music”)?

Inbal Perlson’s aim is slightly more modest. She wishes to reveal the mechanisms that turned the Jewish-Arab music in Israel to “Mizrachi” (eastern) music. She claims that by doing so, the Israeli Zionist hegemony neutralized the Arab component and made the music Israeli. This way the popular folk music (Zemer) could be kelp under control and it did not threat the development to the Israel-Jewish-Askenazi-white musical establishment.

I will review this book in a separate post, however, here, I will to demonstrate how the research questions are so different in these two projects. Perlson’s research is part of a postmodern project that was initiated by authors like Michael Foucault. It is dealing with power forces that control the music establishment, and affect the lives of all Israelis. Michal Smoira-Cohn and Herzl Shmueli project is pretending to be objective, dealing with “the music itself” (whatever that means). Most important: it is ignoring the cultural and social context that music is written and performed in.

Reading only the introductions of these two books, it is clear that the aims, research questions, relation to updated research on music in Israel and in the world, is completely different.

This is why I think anyone who cares why there are almost no books on music in Hebrew in the books shops, must first think what kind of books should be there. Musicologist have limited power. Yet, I saw how musicologist in England and USA were able to raise funds in order to create amazing research projects (see CMPCP and CHARM). We can do the same here. First we should make clear to ourselves and others where we are heading to. Will musicology in Israel in ten years from now will look like it was ten years ago, or will be somewhere else? What are our aims?!

If you care, comment on this post now.

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