Feb. 19, 2018

Musical Subcultures ~ Beginning to Understand

What is a sub-culture? To me it is something that is not initially apparent to all, because it is an underlying, almost understood thing within different communities or groups. In order to be part of one, you must discover it first and then become active within it, otherwise you are just an outsider.

I always knew the word…just didn’t have a real understanding of the many facets of sub-cultures that exist out there today. And while we are supposed to be discussing music, my mind takes me back to learning how easy it is to find subcultures, and to become involved, and then absorbed into them.

I got a tattoo at age 40. I had resisted that long, perhaps because my husband at the time would have frowned upon it (or so he says, even though he now has one too), perhaps because I was afraid to do it. I had always associated tattoos with a certain group of people, mostly the criminal biker gangs, possibly drug addicts, prison inmates, or even skinheads…and I was afraid of all of them. I stereotyped what I thought it meant to have a tattoo and didn’t imagine I ever would do that. It soon dawned on me that many people get tattoos as a way to express themselves or to remember something important, whether it be a loved one, or a connection to an ideal. This seemed more acceptable to me, and of course, it was silly to think that all people with tattoos were bad people. Maybe tattoos have had a coming of age, but they are certainly more widely used than ever, and more acceptable than ever before. Off I went to get my tattoo.

I thought about it long and hard beforehand…what would I get? At the time, I was going through a divorce. I was actively engaged in Karate and learning a lot about the Shotokan style and the Samurai way. This in fact, was my second divorce, equally as painful as the first one had been. Two mistakes…and the common element was me. I wondered if I was to blame. At the lowest time in my life, I learned more about myself than ever before. While I felt weak and depressed, therapy helped me realize that I actually had more fortitude than many others. I decided that I admired the Samurai philosophy of wishing to die only at the height of their glory on the battlefield. They equated this desire with the beauty of the cherry blossom, and it became their emblem. The cherry blossom, you see, does not wither and die on the tree. The petals reach the height of their perfection and then they fall to the ground. On my body, I have a perfect cherry blossom, 5 petals strong. The Samurai symbol of strength and beauty. And below it, two petals being carried away in the wind ~ two withered memories I left behind, to gain my freedom.

While I had been searching for a place to go and get this done, with an artist that I felt would not leave me with a blotchy, blue mark, I came across some artwork displayed in one particular studio. They were photos of people being suspended by ropes. My eyes were widened and I walked further down, to discover more photos, this time of people being suspended by hooks through their skin. Being naturally curious and horrified all at once, I went home and Googled. Oh the things that I did see, that I cannot un-see now. I am afraid again! Clearly, I’m afraid of something I don’t understand. And I decided that I did not want to understand this… Every level of this sub-culture I had found seemed to unfold into another, deeper level of itself…..but, I still wanted the tattoo. I guess that’s how sub-cultures work. We get introduced to something, and we can decide if we like it, want more of it, will explore it, or, whether we’ll reject it.

What does this all have to do with music?
Our human culture is made of ideas, artifacts, practices or rituals, rules, language, history…what you need to know in order to function in society. Within this huge culture are many sub-cultures, and from these we have derived the world’s various genres of music. The ‘Whole’ part of music is that it is a pleasing sound and/or rhythm that humans enjoy, that causes us to move, can cause us to be sad, excited, or frenzied. This pleasing sound and those rhythms have been passed down within each culture and have morphed over and over again, joining together, splitting apart, to explore the development of new sounds that we can appreciate, new rhythms that we can dance to. Instruments developed differently in different regions, and from this sprang the ability to create notes with different characteristics, modes, scales, and pitches. We have borrowed ideas and sounds and art and colour and ritual since the first hungry wanderers decided to see what was on the other side of that mountain range.

Plainsong or Plainchant, is a body of music based on chanting, formed out of religious rituals. It is monophonic in nature, meaning that it consists of an unaccompanied voice. It is typically responsorial, with choir or soloist having the congregation respond, or antiphonal, when alternating verses are switched between these groups.. If you’ve been to Church, you’ve heard Plainsong. Its development began with early Christianity, with influence from Jewish Synagogue and the Greek modes.

Folk Music was what the people made together, around a campfire, sharing a meal; singing of love, fears, conquerors and heroes long into the night after their children were put to bed. They did not have musical notation, did not write anything down ~ these songs and rhythms were learned by repetition and passed down from generation to generation. The intended audience was typically the locals themselves, made mostly for insiders. The odd traveler may have stumbled across a village and heard a new song, and brought snippets of it with him to the next village; the first appropriations happened in this way. Here we have the Dionysian archetype, the one representing chaos.

Art Music became a more ‘elite’ (and I hate using that word when speaking of music) form of song, what with being transcribed and with wealthy patrons supporting it. It was found more in urban centres and in the last couple of centuries, it began to be identified by Nationality, often pertaining to the courts in the area. This equates to the Apollonian archetype, representing order and refinement.

Popular Music combines elements of both Folk and Art, stored & recorded. With advances in technology, it became mediated through radio and television, and has become mass-mediated, moving the artists suddenly from a low-brow/folk status to a high-brow/elite status. Therefore, it is a hybrid of Folk & Art. This category is further divided into genres such as Jazz, Rock, Metal, Hip Hop, House, Funky House, Jungle, etc. Jazz itself can then be sub-divided into many other genres, each developed from a sub-cultural standpoint: Dixieland, Free or Progressive Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Funk, Be-bop, Cabaret.

Sacred Music, based on a liturgical or ritualistic function, helps us to navigate through our traditions of worship. Specific music was developed for every occasion; for a funeral, longest day of the year, short day, full moon, wedding, etc. This then became synonymous with Religious music, with musical rites pertaining to each church calendar event. Since different religions were exclusive to certain areas, the music and the approach was different, but travelers, scholars, and other worshippers on their pilgrimages soon brought elements of what they saw and heard back to their own communities, and sacred music became a Transnational fixture, still with its differences, but now with some similarities as well.

Western Music (and we are not talking about Country & Western just yet) or Western Art Music can then be brought forward as a European genre of music that became formally notated, (written down) theorized, yet still built upon Folk music, Art music, and Popular music. In Pre-Imperial Europe, up to 1500 AD, Plainsong was primarily what was heard, based on the sacred or liturgical music of the area. As trade routes expanded, theologians discussed beliefs, philosophers pondered the meaning of life, new food was tasted, and flavours were endlessly mixed, leaving us with Western Music ~ the evolution of sound sifted through the fabric of culture. Plainsong was the root, with Folk music, Art music, and Popular music of the times intermingled within.

World Music ~ What then, is this all-encompassing term? It is defined as such:

world mu·sic
wərld ˈmyo͞ozik/.
1. traditional music from the developing world.
o Western popular music incorporating elements of traditional music from the developing world.

This term was coined in the 1980’s when there was a surge in combining Western music as we knew it, with elements from ‘the rest of world’, and it resulted in more hybrids than one could possibly imagine. Borne from mankind’s curious nature and appreciation for new things, some would argue that this was unfair cultural appropriation, since others profited from what they saw and heard elsewhere. While we struggle with the correctness of this, could we ponder also that since the earliest days, the appreciation and borrowing of musical strains and ideas brought us to the universal knowledge that music can cross any barriers?

Like a smile, you do not need to know the language of the place you visit, when you can share music and rhythm and dance, food, and art, and fit in perfectly ~ and when you take some of it away with you, it is because of the pure enjoyment and appreciation for what you’ve experienced. You may not understand it at first, you may reject certain aspects of it, yet embrace other elements. Ponder the thought that cultural purity is an oxymoron. Let us continue to share.