Instruments and Ideology

My sister had some pictures taken recently for an album release -- and gosh, if they aren't adorable! Let's take the one, for example.

She's happy, delightfully signalling her Eastern Canadianness with her galoshes, and standing on iconic Haligonian territory (even if she's blocking the view of the clock tower). Yet when I was giving her feedback on the pictures, I said, "ooh, Julia, don't use that one!". Not because I don't like the picture -- but because she's in fact holding a cello. In the others, she's holding her usual instrument, a guitar.

Now, in my fairly professional estimation, Julia is a much better guitarist than she is cellist, and she's certainly a more serious guitarist than cellist. For that reason, it seems more honest for her to pose with the guitar. But that's not why I had this reaction. It's because she's not a real cellist.

We talked about this, and the conversation was handily archived by Gmail. (What follows is edited to remove the parts where I told her that she's a terrific guitarist, on the whole making it sound like I'm a jerk.)

Julia: I actually will be playing cello on the album, and strangely I have been getting lots of cred on my cello lately. Did you know since being the only cellist at the ECMAs I have played on 4 studio albums with cello? (though, to be fair, one was [ex-boyfriend's] band)
me: wha?
That's... weird to me!
Julia: Its weird to me too. (cello) I am mediocre, and not classical at all but... people love it! And fretless playing by ear? Is EASY and amazing on an instrument tuned in fifths.
me: See, I've just never thought of you as a serious cellist
and some snooty part of me is like, "JULIA, STOP DOING THAT".
If that makes sense :P
Which... I am going to admit it doesn't
me: Apparently I am invested in high art values
and think that people shouldn't be non-serious players of string instruments.
Julia: ME TOO! I am happy to hear you say that. People get angry at me for being shy/tentative or angry at being called a cellist... but I always say "HAVE YOU HEARD CELLISTS?" I do not have their discipline or technique.
me: haha
I am so relieved to hear YOU say THAT
And... must point out that we have internalized the same values :p
Julia: But I think.. in some ways for other people it is really refreshing and sounds... inventive and weird that I play cello like a guitar or percussively? But I often when coerced to play shall say I am an abomination to the art in some ways..
So -- what is this all about? If Julia were to pick up, say, a ukelele or a zither after years of playing the guitar, no doubt I'd think that was fine. If she had pictures taken of herself and a hammered dulcimer I'd probably say, "that's weird", but would have no such intense "JULIA STOP DOING THAT" reaction. And all of this, I have to admit, is because the cello is to me a "serious" instrument, one that should not be played by those who don't have proper conservatory discipline and technique. There's room for extended techniques, or pop cello, or jazz cello in this formulation -- as long as you've got the conservatory training first, and are choosing to set it aside. To be a guitarist who plays the cello "like a guitar or percussively", well, that can't be a musical activity of real value. It's an affront to an instrument with a long and storied past, and an affront to all of those conservatory cellists who spend five hours a day thickening the coffee-bean shaped callouses on their thumbs.

Or -- is it? I almost viscerally believe what I've just written. But who's to say that only those with a particular kind of training are 'authorized' to make music on a particular instrument? Would I have this kind of reaction to unschooled performance on an instrument that didn't so strongly signify the Western High Art tradition? And would I have this reaction at all if I hadn't spent the last ten years in university music departments?

I raise these questions because I think of myself, on the whole, as being quite critical of the ideologies that underlie our attitudes about music. I spend a lot of time digging through these ideologies, and I do a lot of work to distance myself from them. But apparently, my investment in the cello as a Serious Instrument cannot quite be undone by critical analysis, or even by a picture of my much-adored youngest sister looking much-adorable with a cello she plays like a guitar.

Now, the endpoint of this thinking in this case is, probably, me giving Julia a scolding for not practicing her scales or bowings (a scolding that she'd shrug off, because she is used to me being scoldy). But imagine how this could play out if I weren't her mostly benevolent, if crotchety, older sister -- if, say, I were a non-benevolent and very crotchety orchestra director, and my objection weren't to a lack of particular training, but to the absurdity of a woman playing the cello. (What kind of woman, after all, would want to play an instrument that's held between the legs?) Or -- what if my objection were to people of colour playing orchestral instruments, in general?

Well -- I'd be in really fucking esteemed company, apparently. I'd be just about set to take over the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here's the point.

If you're hung up on who is making the sounds, instead of on the sounds themselves -- and we are never hearing only the sounds themselves -- you'll probably miss some real aesthetic delights. More importantly, if you don't interrogate your ideas about who "should" be making particular sounds, you will shut entire demographics out of particular kinds of music making. That, it shouldn't need to be said, is absolutely not okay. And that, as anybody who's taken a music history survey should know, is how it's always been.

I'm shocked to realize that I have such a deeply held sense of propriety in relation to an instrument I've never played. (Especially since I've delighted in INTENTIONAL breaches of propriety on instruments I do play...) And so I make an incremental step forward, and admit that my dear sister might well be making tremendous, unorthodox noises with her cello -- even if she's not a 'cellist'. (Giv'er!)


Katie said...

Great post, and well-said as usual. I appreciate your eloquent musings.

Kaitlinb said...


Why did I not know about this before. I plan to do something similar for all of my six years in Ann Arbor, but having read this I feel like I could never quite measure up....

A couple things. I am not a musician and have (sadly) all but forgotten what little musical training I got from beginner band in grades 7 and 8. Nonetheless, I auditioned for the Vancouver Bach youth Choir and by some ridiculous screw up of the fates, got in. I go by ear and have been fortunate enough to experience the wonder that is Bruce Pullan for a year of my life. I continually feel, however, like I shouldn't be there because my knowledge is so mediocre. I get along well enough though, I have a good ear, and what I like to think is a decent voice. However, my current conductor is always looking over my shoulders because I made the mistake of thanking her when she taught us solfege (which I am still horrid at) with the gesture that I was not a music student.

I would love to have the training that I know some in the room have, but at the same time, I know I enjoy the choir in a way I would not otherwise because it is so 'strange' to me. Theory (lit and otherwise) have a will to mastery if I can say that. They assume everything can fall within their structure; and while perhaps music is a mathematical language and can do so, it need not remain so. Theory is a tool of power, which those outside of the power structure are made to be aware of. I repeatedly catch myself censoring urges to canonize authors already canonized when someone rejects them. This is because I think I like the authority the canon provides--like "high art." I came to literature however as one very much vested in breaking apart such hierachies of value in the interest of exploring why such values are precisely so valuable.

Music, like literature, I think however is an interpretation, which hinges ultimately in the art of feeling. Ideology has historically had no room for feeling.

A lot of rambling to say, really, that Tori Amos is so inspiring.

Kaitlinb said...

It is also to say, that that very training which is so 'elitist' is helpful in critiquing the institution. As for example I learned that fifths are the tones used by subways in Vancouver to encourage people to get in. They have a valence of power which I would have never noticed in other music without the tools that musical theory provides. One evil to undo another?