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Yo Yo Ma

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Ethnomusicology and other silly hobbies

Hey, you guys ever notice the “like this post” button at the bottom of my updates? Well, believe it or not, occasionally people click on it! And the other day I received just such an approval from an intriguing young man and fellow blogger named Derek Kortepeter who, in his profile, claimed to be an ethnomusicologist. I perked right up at that and immediately pounced, demanding an interview which he graciously consented to give. Read on as we attempt to answer the question, “What do you even DO with ethnomusicology?”

JENN GERMAN: So, first question – and please answer honestly, because this is VERY IMPORTANT. Beethoven or Mozart?

DEREK KORTEPETER: Beethoven, as a composer his melodies have impacted me greatly.

JG: That is the correct answer, Mr. Kortepeter. We shall do well here.

DK: Whew!

JG: Now, when I first proposed this interview, I mentioned something about my friend who is studying musicology at Peabody, and how all the performance majors blink at her and say, “What do you even DO?” Funny story – I posted to the AB Facebook page with “What would you ask an ethnomusicologist?” and the very first response I received was “What the heck do you do with that degree?”

DK: Haha, you know, you can do A LOT with it. At my school at the undergraduate level, you can choose either a research emphasis (leading in later years to fieldwork where you interact with various cultures and record their music and eventually publish your findings), a performance emphasis (many individuals who have studied at UCLA or teach at UCLA have very prolific performance careers), or composition (many professors have double or triple careers, not only being scholars professionally but also respected composer).

Ethnomusicology is a very unique field, some institutions classify it in the anthropology sections, whereas others put it in a more musical context. Much can be done with it; for instance, my old professor and mentor Dr. Wanda Bryant was the ethnomusicology consultant for James Horner when he composed the score for Avatar. She brought in audio samples of all different cultures, namely minority cultures, to help create the unique score for that film. I know of many people who have worked with Grammy winners, Academy Award winning films, etc., it is a very unique and diverse field.

JG: Ah! As much as I didn’t like Avatar (issues with the plot, not the music), I must say that’s a pretty darn nifty application. I bet it could apply to a lot film scores that need to evoke a specific period and/or setting. Now what exactly do YOU do with it?

DK: I am a composer, and as a composer I want to know at the deepest possible level all music that exists in this world. I chose UCLA over schools like UC Berkeley because as a composer, I am allowed to move in and out of various cultures with ease. I tend to be very critical of conservatories who teach only western classical music, as I feel that, especially for composition students, creativity is stifled. Especially in this postmodern 21st Century era, composers are now more than ever required to understand how to properly write music from cultures different than their own. You must write with knowledge, as Hollywood especially has been guilty of creating stereotypical, inaccurate portrayals of global music (such as the overuse of the Hijaz scale when a storyline is based around the Middle East and inaccurate drum beats and melodies for American Indian music, which is a personal issue for me as a man that is part Cherokee Indian).

JG: Is there a particular culture whose musical traditions you find yourself gravitating toward in your music?

DK: Hmmm, good question, I have influences ranging from Philip Glass and Hans Zimmer to the Thievery Corporation, but if we are talking specific cultures I would say three: Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian. There are others, but especially Chinese and Japanese as I find great musical depth in their ideas.

JG: Are those three your favorites, necessarily? For study?

DK: Um, not my only favorites. I love rock music – it is in my blood as a rock guitarist – so that is a huge part of my scholastic life as well (I actually wrote a paper on rock and metal music in the Arab world). I’m also interested in music theory (western and global), sociology of music, music and politics, electronic music etc. Also musical minimalism.

JG: So sort of American ethnomusicology too?

DK: Yeah, the philosophy of my school is that ethnomusicology is the world, so that means EVERY part of the world, not necessarily an East/West distinction which infers an Us vs. Them mentality. Ethnomusicology used to be very eurocentric, but it has come very far since then to be a very relative and open school of thought. Discussion is encouraged.

JG: What sorts of fusion have you encountered? Or has the blend not come so far yet?

DK: That’s a complex question because it depends on the situation you refer to. You see East meeting West in various compositions of students in the division, as well as a very diverse curriculum that looks to really stretch the music perspective of the student. The ensembles at the school are very purist, but that is only because they desire to teach the correct method of playing. Looking on a global scale there have been strides in East/West music. Philip Glass wrote the score to Martin Scorcese’s Kundun with a western orchestra, Tibetan gongs and horns, and an overall theoretical perspective that draws on Tibetan musical (namely from Tibetan Buddhist rituals). Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project consists of all different instruments, from the Pipa of China to the Santur of Persian culture. There are signs of cultural fusion everywhere, but as I’ve spoken about it on my blog, I believe music education has a long way to go before true cultural inclusion is complete.

JG: Is the curiosity about the “other” side mutual? Are there Tibetans holding their gongs while peering at Western scores and scratching their heads?

DK: I think so; in various cultures there has been integration of western styles. In Japan there is a group called Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra that is just what the name implies, it is a Japanese Ska band. You see in Indonesia the punk rock band Lolot, you see in Iraq (now in New York City) the metal band Acrassicauda. There is curiosity from both sides, I think. In the information age and with increased globalization I think this was inevitable.

JG: Here’s a submitted question I found interesting: do you think musical taste can be passed genetically?

DK: Hmmmm, I’m not sure if it is a question of genetics (i.e. chromosome-inherited traits) as opposed to environment. Children are exposed at a very young age to certain types of music, but that can change due to a number of factors, peers, the desire to be counter-cultural, etc. I know that my taste in music can in some ways be traced to my mom. Growing up she was playing the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen etc., so naturally later I am a huge fan of these bands.

JG: Oh, sure, but there are also kids who come to hate the music their parents “force” on them. You think that has anything to do with musical taste, or is it all in the nature to rebel – or not?

DK: Probably both, you know? Maybe the desire to listen to heavy metal as a counter-cultural statement is merely fulfilling a psychological trait of rebellion.

JG: I hear ya. Anything else you’d like to tell the future ethnomusicologists of America?

DK: If you want to do this, people may not understand it. Believe in your career, though – you really do not know what may happen. I truly believe this field is the field of the future, so why not write the future yourself?

JG: Nicely put. And where does one find your ethnomusicology blog?

DK: www.mixolydianblog.wordpress.com and my music page is www.facebook.com/DerekKortepeter.

JG: Good times. Well, thank you very much!

DK: Hey thanks for entertaining my ideas! You are very welcome.

Thanks so much, Derek! I think we single-handedly advanced the field of ethnomusicology tenfold, don’t you? And Ain’t Baroccos, you can look forward to another interview with the intrepid Stephen P. Brown coming soon! Know anyone else you think deserves to come under my steely journalistic gaze? Let me know!

Yo Ma Ma so stupid, she can’t even yo-yo right

Okay! Let’s start the new year off right, shall we? Okay, then here’s a silly story.

Yesterday I went to lunch with my family, including my paternal grandmother, a delightful lady with eyes a few rods and cones away from true blindness but selective hearing. I happened to ask my mother if she was aware that, per the issue I had just read of Entertainment Weekly, Yo Yo Ma was close friends with Steve Jobs. (She didn’t, so I’m going to assume you didn’t either). Well, my grandmother decided that we were discussing yo-yos and began listing yo-yo tricks.

Naturally I found this hilarious, so I speedily texted it to someone I knew would appreciate it: blog regular Rebekah. She responded with, “My mom thinks his name is Yo Ma Ma.”

There’s an absurdist inside me and her cup runneth over, let me tell you.

But seriously, everything I hear about Yo Yo Ma makes him seem like a really nice guy who shouldn’t be subjected to yo mama jokes. So I’m going to pay tribute to him the best way I know how: with a Sesame Street clip. Murray Beethoven!