Art and Society:

The Meaning of Musical Expression Today

NAKAGAWA Hiroshi
(Indian music performer/researcher)


Born in 1950 in Yamagata Prefecture, Nakagawa studied Indian music theory at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), India from 1981 to 1984. He studied Indian vocal music with Ritwik SANNYAL, and bansuri (bamboo flute) with Gorakhnath DAS. Since returning to Japan in 1984, he has been playing bansuri professionally, and has returned to India once a year since 1988 to study the instrument with Pandit Hariprasad CHAURASIA. In1995, he started giving bansuri performances in India. Besides performing music, Nakagawa runs Tengaku Kikaku, an organization that plans and produces events involving the traditional performing arts of Japan and other Asian countries. From these events, he also sometimes produces CDs. Nakagawa's "Asian Performing Arts Series" (sixteen events have been held since1989) at Xebec Hall have been especially successful and attracted a wide audience of Japanese and foreign listeners. In 1994, his translation of An Introduction to Indian Music by B. Chaitanya DEVA (Toho Shuppan) received much acclaim. He currently resides in Kobe.


Great Music and Human Misfortune

In his wanderings in search of ethnic music around the world and contemplations on the origins of music, the late ethnomusicologist KOIZUMI Fumio offered a fascinating account of his observations of two Eskimo tribes. One tribe of Eskimos, who lived inland and subsisted on caribou, had songs, but were unable to sing them together or keep rhythm with each other. A second tribe who ate whale, however, had a good sense of rhythm, and when they sang together were able to keep a constant pitch and rhythm. Koizumi analyzed their differences in this way:

"This is probably because it is possible for one person to catch a caribou, but a group of many people must join forces to catch a whale....Songs that everyone sings were most likely created to help the people gather their power and catch a whale and to maintain the primitive communal notion they had of dividing the work of the harvest between all of the members of the tribe." (Koizumi Fumio: Minzoku Ongaku no Sekai, Nihon Hoso Shuppan Kyokai, 1985.)

This experience offered Koizumi some insight into the tribes' social values as well: People for whom it wasn't necessary to work communally to secure food, lacked the ability to sing together. Or you might also say that the reason we are able to sing together and listen to more refined forms of music indicates something about the amount of cooperation in our society. The more complex a communal society becomes, the more complex the rules members of that society must obey become. In our lives, we learn certain rules, and must discover techniques to help us succeed in society. In Eskimo society, since it lacks our concept of real estate and other valuables as personal property that work to establish a class system, no one occupies a social station either above or below anyone else--all the more reason for the simple structure of music. As Koizumi puts it, "I began to get the feeling that great music in a society had some direct relation to the misfortunes of people." (Ongaku no Kongen ni aru Mono, Heibonsha, 1994.)

Musicians of the Past and Society

This probably means then that we are living in what Koizumi termed an "unfortunate" society. At present, work in our society is not directly linked to survival, as it was in the caribou Eskimo's society; we are far removed from their simple and free way of life. Ours is an "unfortunate" society in which real feelings about the relation between society and the individual cannot clearly be expressed due to the constant race for the acquisition of wealth. Neither can our real feelings about the relation between life and work be expressed, when every activity is equated with a cash value.
The music we create too is bought and sold according to a fixed cash value that is determined by a balance of supply and demand. No matter how weighty or artistically superior a work might be, without value as a product that satisfies some market demand, it is quickly abandoned. At long last, of course, society does evaluate the artistic worth of an art work. But in a society such as ours, with the exception of those who enjoy making music as a hobby, for a person to continue making music they must work as a professional musician or do something that will suffice as a job. The only other choice is to become a recluse.

Musicians of the past who made classical music their profession were supported in a sense by the wealthy feudal lords or men of means, or as Ernst FISCHER called them "innocent patrons of the arts." In effect, classical music was a product of its era. At the very least, musicians had to develop a relationship with a sponsor they had direct contact with, which meant expending an equivalent amount of time and energy concentrating on the writing and performing of highly polished music. More than anything else, in this class system musicians had to rely on getting their share of the pie from the wealthy, who had squeezed it out of some other poor soul. This was just as true in Indian classical music as it was in Western classical music and the Japanese traditional performing arts. This music, which remained out of reach for those who were exploited, has on the other hand survived into the present day as a universal form of culture that history did not weed out. Despite changes in time and society, we have been lucky enough to receive these works.

Musicians of Today and Society

Times and conditions surrounding contemporary professional musicians have changed markedly since classical music was developed. Musicians of today can only support themselves by offering their work to a faceless audience--a wide-ranging "general public" of consumers and production capitalists who use music as a means of marketing. Recently, the speed at which music is being made into consumer product has increased even more, and whether they like it or not, composers and performers have become tangled up in something called "the music industry." This industry incites the whimsical, capricious army of consumers into action, and to satisfy their demands asks the musicians for something newer, something that will be a bigger hit, something that will make more money. There is a great rush to find "stars" who can make plenty of cash. Under these circumstances, the musicians refine their work to a higher level of artistry, making it increasingly difficult to give form to the experience of sound or allow the legions of musicians in-waiting much practice time.

Contemporary Problems in Indian Classical Music

Neither is this situation uncommon in the Hindustani music world with its "eternal history." Hindustani music, one of the most organizationally minute musical systems in the world, was developed with the help of only a handful of supporters. To become a mature musician with a firm grasp on the essence of the art, an astonishingly long period of concentrated practice is required. In India today, change is happening at a speed that does not allow the traditional method of practice to continue. At recent concerts, more than expressing something that would inspire a deep spirituality as in the past, performers who place a strong importance on acrobatic techniques and unusual styles that encourage instant applause have become widespread. In addition, for the last ten years or so, there has been a monopoly of the music scene by a few famous musicians. Needless to say, these musicians are all accomplished players, but their continuing dominance is based less on their great musicianship than the fact that they are a source of revenue for the music industry, and even more so because the media attention they attract makes them a dependable source of revenue. For young, "no-name" musicians, who should be heading up the next generation of players but are unpredictable as sources of expenditure and income, it has become extremely difficult to work independently as a professional musician. Instead, they have turned their sights to following a famous, senior musician, and performing on the basis of their more developed techniques. There are many Indian musicians who are alarmed by the present turn of events. In November 1995 at an international seminar (sponsored by the Sangeet Research Academy) entitled "Tradition and Change" that was held in Mumbai (formerly, Bombay), a number of famous musicians took part in what turned into a lively discussion about the problem.

Music as Product

In the end, what does work mean to musicians in our "unfortunate" contemporary society? Musicians also have to eat, so it's impossible to avoid being sponsored by society in the form of consumer products such as performances and recordings. In the structure of our contemporary communal society, music does have a social function. Performances and recordings, besides their function as simple entertainment increase the value of any number of other products. There are numerous examples of this type of consumer music all around us. Among these are news shows, TV dramas, and recently, train platforms, streets and shops, restaurants, hotel lounges, airports, movies, games, airplanes, cattle ranches, and meditation centers. For those using the music, there are a wide variety of reasons and objectives for choosing a particular work. All the way from Western classical music, short "works" used as background music for games and news, and popular songs to jazz, contemporary music, and Japanese traditional music, there is no limit to the genres that are used. In every case, whether it is a classical work or something that is almost instantly forgotten, music is used as a means of marketing in contemporary society, and this is how musicians get paid and keep eating. Well, Bach and Mozart aren't making anything off of their "classic" works as they drift through the walkways in the Center-gai shopping center in Kobe 200-some years later, but...

The Meaning of Music Today

It might seem obvious, but just as music has a function in society, it is also a form of self-expression for the musician. In contemporary society, the more all activities are translated into their cash value, the more disconnected things become, and the more difficult it becomes for real emotions about the relationship between society and the individual to be expressed, the stronger the desire to somehow understand the meaning of existence will become. This is true not only of musicians. Every form of personal expression is a kind of desire. But this is especially true of an artistic form of expression like music, which involves remembering the various listening experiences of all types of people, and the act of giving form to the basic memory of an individual or race. Since the quality and quantity of experiences and memories differs from person to person, the content and method of the expressions differ in as many ways as there are people. Art works that attempt to express real emotions about life are borne of the discord that exists in the act of expression.
However, ours is a society that is often less than hospitable to a variety of forms of self-expression for reasons related again to cash value and the musician's lack of direct involvement in the social order. It is also less than hospitable to those who aren't part of the dogma that involves good schools and good companies. In this sort of environment, acts of artistic expression should always contain elements of criticism.
In contemporary society, inherent with the "unfortunate" human condition that Koizumi defined, artistic expression that gives voice to the truths of existence not only functions socially, but makes a positive contribution to society by providing its collective imagination with a host of choices and by keeping the society limber.



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