Sunday, 22 February 2015

Presentation at Special Research Forum, 19/2/15: ‘Singing Identity: Music and Endangered Languages’



Kit Ashton presentation - Special Research Forum, Goldsmiths College, University of London 19/2/15 from Kit Ashton on Vimeo.



This Special Research Forum was hosted by Goldsmiths College, University of London, in partnership with the University of Osaka.
19/2/15
Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths College, University of London
Text:

(sung)
J’ai tchilyi la belle rose,
J’ai tchilyi la belle rose,
Tchi pendait au blianc rôsyi,
Belle rose,
Tchi pendait au blianc rosyi,
Belle rose, rose au blianc.

Jé l’apportis à ma méthe,
Jé l’apportis à ma méthe,
Entre Saint Ouën et Saint Jean,
Belle Rose,
Entre Saint Ouën et Saint Jean,
Belle rose, rose au blianc.



Those two verses are from a song called ‘Belle Rose’, which dates back at least as far as 1633, though it could be much older.

The language I was singing in was Jèrriais – a dialect of Norman French unique to my home island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, spoken there for many hundreds of years. But Jèrriais is now an endangered language - today only a few hundred native speakers remain (out of a population of 100,000) - all of whom are over the age of 50.
[http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-25161258]

So why should we care about that?

Well firstly, this may not be very objective or academic but I care because this is my home, my community, my family. My Gran only spoke French and Jèrriais until she went to school, where she not only had to learn English, but would have been beaten for speaking Jèrriais. She was told that if you want to get on in life you need to speak English and ‘proper’ French. Eventually she married an Englishman and consequently never passed on our native language to my father, or uncles and aunt.
Now I’m on a journey of discovery, learning Jèrriais and thinking about the ways in which music might be able to help revitalise the language, which is a key part of the intangible cultural heritage of Jersey. And it is this journey that is hopefully beginning to reveal something of wider academic interest.
I’m exploring the potential of applied ethnomusicology to contribute to language revitalisation through the ongoing project of shaping cultural identity and language ideology. Connections between music and cultural identity are profound and powerful (though complex) and an initial consideration of this underscores my argument that understanding and engaging with these connections in context offers the strongest potential for ‘musical language activism’, in combination with other elements.
I’ll come back to Jersey later, but let’s first look at some of the wider context, and some of the theoretical ideas, followed by a few other examples from around the world. I will conclude by noting some of the philosophical and ethical concerns, as well as practical challenges, hoping to lead to a balanced view that recognises the need to weigh optimism for the positive potential against a proper and careful consideration of the manifold complexities. My research in Jersey is ongoing, so I would welcome any thoughts, criticism, and suggestions at the end of this presentation.

Context

Over 40% of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing during this century.
[The Endangered Language Project]
In 2003 UNESCO member states voted for a new international treaty: ‘the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage’, energising a concerted global attempt to stem the rapid loss of languages, music, and other elements of fragile human cultural identity and history:

The Convention aims to ensure the survival and vitality of the world’s living local, national, and regional cultural heritage in the face of increasing globalisation and its perceived homogenising effects on culture.

As anthropologist Richard Kurin notes:


The world has lost literally thousands of linguistic communities, and with them much of the oral literature, the stories and tales and ways in which humans have seen and imagined the world - and how they might have done so in the future. Music, dance, performances and rituals, culinary and occupational traditions, craftsmanship and a large variety of knowledge systems have been lost or are in decline.
So - indigenous lifeways of all kinds are being fragmented, diluted and threatened in many ways and at many levels. This is a fact of human life in the 21st Century. The important question is how we respond and why. Well-meaning votes and treaties need real action to take effect. Each of those endangered languages represent a unique community, heritage and culture – intrinsically precious in human terms, as well as of great academic interest. Each loss is its own particular tragedy. It is a struggle against time and (cultural) tide, which is why every potentially helpful strategy should be considered, and where I believe music holds some real promise.

Why revitalise an almost-dead language? 

To answer this important question, I would argue firstly that the cognitive, intellectual, social and economic merits of bilingualism in general are well-evidenced and speak for themselves.

Bilingualism promotes cognitive control processes, metalinguistic awareness, general language and literacy development, and conceptual thinking - stretching our abilities to learn and think in new ways. At this purely cognitive and intellectual level it’s worth noting that music can play a helpful role in language acquisition – enhancing mood, focus, motivation, memory, even phonological discrimination and structural awareness. A bilingual person is also (arguably) a ‘richer’ person in some respects, making them more ‘rounded’ and employable – showing cultural depth and diversity, communication and social skills, as well as the other cognitive skills mentioned above.

Secondly, the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage preserves a healthy diversity in our global cultural ecosystem, as well as an ongoing appreciation of living heritage that may be rooted in the past but can also evolve consciously and positively. This has wider potential economic benefits for tourism, local branding, and creative business innovation.

Thirdly, and perhaps most optimistically, it is my view that revitalization of a locally situated endangered language could contribute to a positive, non-exclusive sense of local cultural identity. This in itself may improve social cohesion, centred around a local ‘linguistic community’ that can transcend other perceived social, cultural and genetic boundaries in a globalised, multi-cultural world. A properly revitalised language would be passed on organically from generation to generation, fostering the ongoing evolution of intangible cultural heritage as opposed to just ‘preservation’ in a metaphorical (or actual) cultural museum. For all of UNESCO’s efforts, the danger of museumification is very real (though that would be better than nothing of course), and this is where music has a significant role to play.

As Ethnomusicologist Henry Johnson says:

[A] study that interconnects a minority and endangered language and the creation of music culture offers a new perspective to ethnomusicological scholarship. It is with such a cultural interface that the researcher can see the power that song can have in mobilizing people, and how people can create song as a result of language activism.
So how would Johnson’s idea of a ‘cultural interface’ work?

Music, Voice and Identity

A key goal in language revitalisation is to change general ‘awareness and approval’ into specific engagement, attachment, acquisition and use. This is where a broad and passive appreciation of the language as part of cultural identity becomes a focussed and active language ideology - and music could be a useful tool in this process. There seems to be real potential for the research and development of various projects in this area, and my view is that the musical aesthetic employed should not only consider embracing the enactment of ‘traditional’ musics, or even ‘contemporary’ re-workings of already culturally significant works, but take a constructivist approach to identity and develop entirely new works that include some singing and also make particular use of a well-researched understanding of local youth culture towards this end.

My thoughts on the connections between music and identity draw on writing from several broad fields including philosophy (Strawson, Perry), neuroscience (Levitin), sociology (Hall, DeNora), psychology (Leary, Tangney), and musicology (Frith, Negus). Let’s take a brief walk through some of those thoughts and see how this might work.

First of all, let’s establish that I am making use of a ‘non-essentialist’ conception of identity as a process which is developed or ‘constructed’ over time, rather than a fixed or unified ‘thing’. This is in line with contemporary thinking in the fields of psychology and sociology. The experience of identity happens, or becomes relevant, where social forces interact with us as individuals with evolving subjective characteristics. Identity is thus an ongoing project to define or design – to construct – what makes us ‘different’ in the process of engaging or integrating with the world around us. It is a necessarily interactive and comparative experience of being conscious and social - and music offers a unique experience of this, which is partly why it is such a powerful tool for constructing and shaping our identity.

Many musicologists including Simon Frith, Timothy Rice and Martin Stokes have explored this idea. As Frith says: Making music isn't a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them. This raises the question of how music can embody an identity rather than simply represent it. Frith again: The issue is not how a particular piece of music or a performance reflects the people, but how it produces them, how it creates and constructs an experience - a musical experience, an aesthetic experience - that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and a collective identity. This has become known as the ‘reverse-homological’ approach, as opposed to the homological -which would try to understand the ways in which performances ‘express’ already-existing ideas and identities.

The role of the voice 

Singing (and rapping) which explicitly combines music with the language is important. People can repeatedly listen to, enjoy, engage, and identify with, performances and recordings. Also, the physical act of communal singing pro-actively embodies solidarity, linguistic praxis and collective identity in a memorable, direct, unmediated experience.

The crucial phase: Childhood 

The early years leading into young adulthood are clearly crucial, not just in the emergence of an identity, but in the very formation of the deep structures of the brain, which form the basis of all the cognitive and psychological processes involved in being who one is.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has written about this in relation to music and culture. Drawing on several studies he shows how musical perception and memory begins in the womb, preference for music of one’s own culture begins by age two, we internalize rules about harmony and typical chord progressions around age five, with increased understanding and a taste for greater complexity progressing into the teen years, which are “the turning point for musical preference”, when much “neural pruning” occurs, and peer dynamics are at their most formative (Levitin mentions the age of fourteen specifically). No matter what musical training and tastes are subsequently acquired, in general musical perceptions and preferences are largely set for life before the average person turns twenty - neural structures and general concepts relating to music are well established by this point. This journey is clearly both neurological and psychological – a collaboration of biological, social and historical factors – which will vary dramatically from age to age, culture to culture, person to person.

Cultural identity and language acquisition follow a similar journey – so clearly for language activists the first few years of a child’s life is the crucial phase to tie these three threads together – music, language, and cultural identity – and the teen years represent the culmination of this process. If a young person authentically identifies with the music, language, and general identity of a given culture by the age of fourteen, there is a good chance they will retain a strong affiliation with all three for the rest of their lives, informing their ‘Cultural Model’, consciously and unconsciously. They would then quite possibly want to pass them on to their children and beyond.

So that’s the theory.

Now let’s look at a few examples, followed by a bit more detail about Jersey.

1. Maze, Norway. The language of Sami. Artist/activist: Slincraze. Style: Hip-hop/rap




2.  Guatemala. The languages of Quiché, Tz’utujil, and Kaqchikel. Artist/activist:  Rene Dionisio (Tzutu Baktun Kan) / Casa Ahau. Style: Hip-hop/rap



Casa Ahau - Hip Hop hits the Maya Highlands from David Mercer on Vimeo.


3. Isle of Man, Britain. The language of Manx. Artist/activist: Ruth Keggin/ Culture Vannin (formerly Manx Heritage Foundation. Style: Folk/ Various



 
Jersey 

Jèrriais is a dialect of Norman French unique to Jersey, widely spoken in the past but now endangered due to various, mainly economic and political reasons. Recent years have seen the beginnings of a revitalisation process, thanks to the efforts of a very active few, including the government funded body L’Office Du Jèrriais, which teaches and promotes the language across the island. Music has been an active part of the strategy – most regularly through the use of folk song and amateur singing groups, but latterly through a more contemporary approach – I was commissioned in 2012 to arrange and record six Jèrriais folk songs in a more ‘pop’ style for Jèrriais teachers to use as a resource in schools.

Badlabecques is a pop-folk band that I founded out of that commission. The band is now popular and active in raising the profile of the language as a living part of local cultural identity. Badlabecques’ repertoire mixes re-contextualised traditional songs, translated pop ‘covers’, and original songs. This is a performance for the National Trust for Jersey at a particular site they manage, with a natural amphitheatre and an ancient dolmen nearby:





Badlabecques is now a relatively well-established part of the local cultural landscape, performing regularly at festivals and cultural events, releasing recordings and appearing in the local press, raising the profile of the language, and even appearing in a cartoon form with a sing-along section of a history book produced by Jersey Heritage. This is all well and good but I believe there is much more that can be done.

What I am hoping to establish in my research at Masters level is firstly that music does indeed play an active role in shaping the identity of young people in Jersey at the moment, and secondly that Badlabecques is contributing to an evolving cultural identity in some way. Thirdly, and perhaps most optimistically, I’m hoping to devise a small-scale pilot study to help test my thesis and sketch out the ethnomusicological ‘reality on the ground’. I hope this may tentatively point towards new potential music projects, which could be generally characterised as ‘applied ethnomusicology’, be they educational programmes, community choirs, new bands, radio programmes, competitions or projects of some other kind – the nature of which will only be revealed through further field research.

Consequently, I would be keen to establish the detail by undertaking a thorough and grounded PhD-level study of the typical music practices (listening, practicing, identification etc) of the various communities in Jersey. This field work could involve focus groups and interviews in schools, youth clubs and community centres; ‘vox pops’ in the street/clubs/bars; online surveys and dialogue on social media (identity is now online as much as elsewhere); further pilot projects and experiments; as well as engagement with current language activists, teachers, other stakeholders and local government.

I hope to reach a helpful ‘engaged analysis’ of what is inevitably a complex cultural context, to understand how music relates to that context, and consider what potential this offers. Given the many diverse sub-cultures as well as interconnected social, economic, historical, and environmental dynamics in Jersey I recognise that this is an ambitious hope.

And there are other philosophical, ethical and practical questions too. Issues of democracy, governmental paternalism, political manipulation and even problematic nationalism loom on the horizon. For example - what language and cultural identity do the people really want and need? Whilst recent surveys have shown the public in Jersey do generally support the idea of keeping Jèrriais alive, is their everyday lack of involvement the more honest message? Whose right is it to ‘shape’ culture, in whose hands should that fall, and in whose interest is it done? At what point would grassroots music and language projects become social engineering, artificially manipulating children’s identity? When does an ‘authentic’ revitalisation programme become a doomed ‘fake’ fabrication? What would revitalization actually look like? English will be the dominant language in Jersey for the foreseeable future so what role should Jèrriais, and Jèrriais music play for generations to come? When is it ‘too late’ or pointless to keep investing in such programmes anyway – especially during uncertain economic times of limited financial resources?

Given all of the above, I hope to be able to maintain a balance that is both realistic about the challenges and complexities, and optimistic about the potential for positive outcomes.

Mèrcie bein des fais pouor m’êcouter. Thank you very much for listening.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

First MA essay: On Music and Identity


So I've started an MA in Music at Goldsmiths College, London. Here's my first essay, covering some thoughts on music and identity:

“Identity comes from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.” [1] What does Simon Frith mean and is he right?
Refer to musical examples in your answer.

Contents
1. Introduction
2. The ‘Self’ and Identity
3. Frith – Linking Music and Identity
4. Is Frith right?
5. Case Study
6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In this essay I will broadly agree with Frith’s view up to a point, but go on to explore its limitations and various related issues, particularly in terms of how Frith links music with identity formation. I suggest that his perspective, whilst insightful and important, is too narrow and optimistic - arguing for a broader and more balanced approach.
The Frith quote in the title of this essay comes from the chapter entitled ‘Music and Identity’ in the book ‘Questions of Cultural Identity’ [2], edited by Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay. In his introductory chapter (‘Who Needs Identity?’ [3]), Hall sets out a constructivist approach to identity, which underpins Frith’s approach. Some general background and a summary of Hall’s definition of identity will therefore be helpful in understanding what Frith means, and how it might apply to music. I will then explore Frith’s perspective itself, as he develops this constructivism into a ‘reverse-homology’, which shows how music can be a significant tool for identity formation via the embodiment of a collective identity in a musical aesthetic which then shapes the listener.
I do not critique his basic constructivism, but I do raise several issues which Frith does not address; including the implications of the fact that identity formation is not always a conscious process, or the product of free choice as he seems to assume, and consequently that this may involve some potentially negative elements. I also briefly explore a question raised by Negus and Velázquez regarding the ‘reverse-homology’ [4] as potentially containing its own form of musical essentialism, and offer my own perspective on this.
Finally I offer a musicological reflection on a case study, which illustrates these issues as they appear ‘on the ground’. All of this leads me to a conclusion, which, as mentioned, calls for a balanced approach that considers the sheer complexity of just how identity is formed and how music can be involved in this process.

[1] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[2] Stuart Hall et al., Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[3] Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[4] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145


2. The ‘Self’ and Identity

Firstly, in order to ground our definition of the self which experiences this identity I am choosing to sidestep a philosophical debate, which is outside of the scope of this essay, and simply quote Galen Strawson’s broad proposal for an outline of the mental self as it is “ordinarily conceived or experienced” [5] . I would like to establish that it is this self – this ‘thing’ that I am referring to which experiences the psychological phenomenon of identity as a mind inside a body (though I should note that where points 3 and 4 assume a ‘single’ thing this is term held loosely as discussed later in the essay).
‘The Self’ :
(1) a thing, in some robust sense
(2) a mental thing, in some sense
(3,4) a single thing that is single both synchronically considered and diachronically considered
(5) ontically distinct from all other things
(6) a subject of experience, a conscious feeler and thinker
(7) an agent
(8) a thing that has a certain character or personality [6]


To be clear about the word ‘identity’ itself I am talking about self-identity – the agent-relative [7], subjective and reflexive self-definition or self-categorization that one gives to one’s own person. I am not referring to date of birth, passport number or dental records (though those things may have special significance for you for whatever reason), but (to use John Perry’s phrase) to “that set of attributes that a person attaches to himself or herself most firmly, the attributes that the person finds it difficult or impossible to imagine himself or herself without”[8].

[5] Galen Strawson, “The Self,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1997): p. 405-28.
[6] Ibid.
[7] John Perry, “The Self,” (1995), Available from: http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/453/PerrySelf.pdf
[8] Ibid.

An in-depth philosophical debate around the notion of essentialism and its pervasive ongoing popularity (both generally and in regard to identity) is more than I have space for here [9] [10] [11] [12] but as Hall notes, many philosophers (from Heidegger onwards) have thoroughly critiqued the Cartesian subject, latterly in favour of a more ‘ecological’ self, embedded and integrated into an environment within which it dynamically evolves, and along with which a self-identity develops.
A proper exploration of this is, as mentioned, beyond the confines of this essay, but few would argue with the basic starting point that material and social context - gender, sex, race, upbringing et cetera has an immense, if not total, bearing on the self and one’s subjective identity. Hall also points out that cultural criticism (Hall, Badiou and others) and feminism (Kristeva, Butler and others) have explored and advanced notions of subjectivity, influenced by psychoanalytic theory. I have limited space to outline much of this in any meaningful way, given the breadth of these ideas and the mass of literature that has developed them, but Hall’s understanding of identity being defined by ‘the Other’ has its roots here. [13] [14]

[9] David S. Oderberg, Real Essentialism. (Routledge 2008).
[10] L.A. Paul, “In Defense of Essentialism,” Metaphysics, Noûs, Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives, 40 (2006): p. 333-372
[11] F. Xu and R. Mijke, “In Defense of Psychological Essentialism,” (in 27th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2005). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
[12] S.A. Gelman, and H.A. Lawrence, “How Biological Is Essentialism?”, Folkbiology, 1999.
[13] Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[14] D. Nobus, Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (LLC Press, 1999)

It is worth briefly mentioning the long ranging influence of Marxist thought (Adorno, Benjamin, Gramsci and others) and the ripple effect it had on the psychology of personality and cultural criticism, which Frith draws upon in his essay. [15]
Hall also reminds us that postmodernism has developed many angles on the “endlessly performative self” [16], and that a unified, essentialist notion of identity has been largely rejected across a range of intellectual spheres in the post-modern era. To conclude my remarks on Hall’s view of identity, which forms the backdrop to discussion of Frith, the concept of narrative is also an important point – a “narrativization of the self” [17] is to be understood as “the process of becoming rather than being: not `who we are' or `where we came from', so much as what we might become.” [18] This leads to two other important elements of this process – 1) the imaginary element (“necessarily fictional… partly constructed in fantasy, or at least within a fantasmatic field” [19]) and 2) the social element (“constructed within, not outside, discourse… above all, and directly contrary to the form in which they are constantly invoked, identities are constructed through, not outside, difference.” [20]) All of which brings us to Hall’s most clear-cut definition of identity:
“I use `identity' to refer to the meeting point, the point of suture, between on the one hand the discourses and practices which attempt to `interpellate', speak to us or hail us into place as the social subjects of particular discourses, and on the other hand, the processes which produce subjectivities, which construct us as subjects which can be `spoken'. Identities are thus points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us.” [21]

[15] L. Sève, Man in Marxist Theory: and psychology of personality, (Harvester Press, 1978)
[16] Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.

To simplify that, the experience of identity happens, or becomes relevant, where social forces interact with us as individuals with evolving subjective characteristics. Identity is thus, for Hall, an ongoing project to define or design what makes us ‘different’ in the process of engaging or integrating with the world around us. It is a necessarily interactive and comparative experience of being conscious and social.
It is this idea that Frith has in mind when he says “Identity comes from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.” [22] In Frith’s own very clear words: “identity is mobile, a process not a thing, a becoming not a being” [23], “the self is always an imagined self”[24], and “in talking about identity we are talking about a particular kind of experience, or a way of dealing with a particular kind of experience.” [25] He also emphasizes narrative as the ‘structure’ of identity: “The concept of narrative… is not so much a justification of the idea of personal identity, as an elucidation of its structure as an inescapable piece of make-believe.” [26]
He gives further examples of this view, all of which are very much in line with Hall’s approach to identity, and whilst I could quote some in isolation, most of Frith’s points are directly interwoven with his efforts to show how music can be connected to identity - so it is to music I now turn.

[22] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.


3. Frith – Linking Music and Identity

“Making music isn't a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them.” [27]

The overall direction Frith is trying to take is the opposite one to “the usual academic and critical argument” [28] which, he says, is homological and ideologically interpreted ex post. He wants to reverse this approach and consider how music “creates and constructs an experience - a musical experience, an aesthetic experience - that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and a collective identity.” [29]
It is this narrative, social, aesthetic experience/performance that makes music a unique form of self-making (as opposed to “even passionate activities like gardening or dog-raising”[30]): “our experience of music - of music making and music listening - is best understood as an experience of this self-in-process”. [31]
Central to this argument is the connection between aesthetics and ethics: “Music, like identity, is both performance and story, describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social, the mind in the body and the body in the mind; identity, like music, is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics.” [32]
Frith asserts that ethics are embodied in aesthetics: “[M]usic, an aesthetic practice, articulates in itself an understanding of both group relations and individuality, on the basis of which ethical codes and social ideologies are understood.” [33]

[27] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.

Frith also develops the idea of ‘truth’ value and authenticity, which plays a role in how music shapes identity ‘from the outside’. Authentic music should contain within its aesthetic the parameters of the subjective and collective identity (the ‘ethic’) which you are required to take on in order to experience it’s ‘truth’ value (identifying with the ‘ethic’) - relative to your subjective contingencies (and interpretation). [34]
He links anti-essentialism with music directly, as a “necessary consequence of music's failure to register the separations of body and mind on which such ‘essential’ differences (between black and white, female and male, gay and straight, nation and nation) depend.” [35] Thus whatever your particular subjectivities are, music as a social practice offers a unique experience of identifying with, or against, wider discourses that relate to those subjectivities. For Frith, the interesting question is how the aesthetic shapes, actualizes and interacts with the values that inform and stimulate those discourses with all their human complexities.
Frith then summarises his view:

Music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experiences it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enable us to place ourselves in imaginative cultural narratives. Such a fusion of imaginative fantasy and bodily practice marks also the integration of aesthetics and ethics. [36]

[34] I say ‘relative’ because as Frith memorably describes, one can identify with music which is most strongly associated with a group you cannot directly be part of but whose aesthetic resonates with your vision of identity for whatever reason: “in taking pleasure from black or gay or female music I don't thus identify as black or gay or female (I don't actually experience these sounds as `black music' or `gay music' or `women's voices') but, rather, participate in imagined forms of democracy and desire.” [37] Indeed, enjoying black music could conceivably have been the first introduction to or decisive persuader of those ideals, markedly shaping the identity Frith ‘took on’ at that point.
[35] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.

4. Is Frith Right?

As stated, I am not going to challenge Frith with arguments about essentialist views of identity – I broadly agree with his constructivist approach, and believe his insight into how aesthetics can relate to ethics and thus shape identity is an important consideration; but in this section of my essay I will explore a few lines of critique that I think expose some of the general limitations of his view – or at least the way he has presented his view. Music may well be able to construct identities in the way that Frith describes, but he neglects to discuss the following issues:

1) Identity is not always experienced as a narrative, and therefore music cannot always interact with identity in this way.

2) Identity is not always formed consciously and proactively – in fact there is much that is both unconscious and beyond our control, including elements of the relationship between music and identity formation.

3) Given the above, the process of shaping identity is likely to involve social dynamics that are not always coherent, positive, or healthy. Frith does not address this point, so his perspective seems too optimistic, and lacks balance.

4) As Negus and Velázquez have shown [38], Frith’s ‘reverse-homology’ can be challenged as potentially containing its own form of musical essentialism – between the music and the collective identity it constructs. I suggest the tension here may be resolved by a composite approach that considers:
i) How elements of an aesthetic come to be associated with a collective identity via (often arbitrary) environmental, historical and homological factors.
ii) How aesthetic and thus ethical meaning are established in that collective.
iii) How homology and Frith’s ‘reverse-homology’ are both relevant.
iv) How an aesthetic must be ‘read’ if it is to ‘shape’ identity, and therefore must be learned to be ‘read’ or else risk being ‘mis-read’ (or just not ‘read’ at all).

5) Given all of the above, the process of identity formation, and the interaction of music in this process, is more complex than Frith allows for.

Beginning with narrativity, Strawson raises some relevant questions about its role in the experience of self and identity [39]. He makes a distinction between the ‘psychological Narrativity thesis’ – “a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives.” [40] (Frith seems to concur with this idea); and the ‘ethical Narrativity thesis’ – the idea that “experiencing or conceiving one’s life as a narrative is a good thing; a richly Narrative outlook is essential to a well-lived life” [41]. He also describes two types of self-experience - the ‘Diachronic’ and the ‘Episodic’:
The Diachronic…
[D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term diachronic continuity… …[the] Episodic, by contrast,
[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future. [42]

Strawson rejects both Narrativity theses - the psychological and the ethical - drawing on some evidence from various others’ experience of themselves but mainly his own experience. He considers himself an ‘Episodic’ person, with no particular sense or experience of a narrative of his life and identity. This is relevant to Frith in two ways – one simple, and one with more complex implications. Firstly that whilst it may be defensibly established that identity is non-essential and therefore constructed, the narrative aspect is, apparently, not universally experienced. As Eakin points out:
“Narrative identity, then, is only one, albeit extremely important, mode of self-experience” [43] - therefore the narrative aspect of music may well function as an ‘identity-shaping tool’ but not universally so.
Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, for people of a more ‘Episodic’ nature, the experience of identity is contingent on ‘the outside’ in an arguably more immediate sense, so a consideration of this process leads to a further debate about Frith’s view of identity being something we “put or try on” [44] – with its connotation of positive, conscious and willing free choice; and music has a special relevance here.
Strawson states that for Episodics “the past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.” [45] This is strikingly relevant both as an analogy for the constructed experience of identity and directly for the relationship of music to that experience – how music might function as a tool for ‘self-making’.

[38] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145
[39] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio, 17 (2004): p. 428-452.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Paul John Eakin, “Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism: A Response to Galen Strawson and James Phelan”, Narrative, 14 (2006): p. 180-187.
[44] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[45] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio, 17 (2004): p. 428-452.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has written about the growth and development of children’s understanding of music, and musical taste [46]. Drawing on several studies he shows how musical perception and memory begins in the womb, preference for music of one’s own culture begins by age two, we internalize rules about harmony and typical chord progressions around age five, with increased understanding and a taste for greater complexity progressing into the teen years, which are “the turning point for musical preference” [47], when much neural pruning occurs, and peer dynamics are at their most formative. No matter what musical training and tastes are subsequently acquired, in general musical perceptions and preferences are largely set for life before the average person turns twenty - neural structures and general concepts relating to music being well established by this point. This journey is clearly both neurological and psychological – a collaboration of biological, social and historical factors – which illustrates how ecological factors largely beyond our control have a huge impact on our experience of music as a ‘technology of self’ [48], in terms of how we habitually use it as such, but also our capability to potentially use music in this way, which will vary dramatically from age to age, culture to culture, person to person.
To extend Strawson’s analogy – all of our experiences of music “body forth” [49] our musical pasts (non-musicians included), shaping each particular musical ‘episode’ and any consequent identity formation, all of which illuminates a wider issue – that ecological factors largely beyond our control also hugely influence our identities whether we are conscious of it or not. As adults we might become more active agents in the process, but the limitations we contend with start in our own neurological and biological history – in our own brains and bodies – and clearly do not end there.

[46] Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, (Dutton, 2006)
[47] Ibid.
[48] Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) p18. (See also: DeNora, T., Music in Everyday Life, Chapter 3 - ‘Music as a Technology of Self’, for a further application of this term to music).
[49] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio, 17 (2004): p. 428-452.

At the beginning of his essay Frith quotes Anthony Storr: “Becoming what one is is a creative act comparable with creating a work of art” [50]. Elsewhere in the essay Frith says “invented histories, invented biologies, invented cultural affinities come with every identity” [51] – but the question is who does the inventing, and how? How free are we really, to creatively construct and ‘put on’ the identity of our choice?
David Hesmondhalgh develops this question, claiming there is a “dominant conception” [52] in academia that is too celebratory and positive with respect to music as a “resource for active self-making” [53]). This view “implicitly sees music as highly independent of negative social and historical processes” [54]. He cites Frith along with music sociologist Tia DeNora and anthropologist Ruth Finnegan as prominent examples. Hesmondhalgh suggests that:
1) Music is now bound up with the incorporation of authenticity and creativity into capitalism, and with intensified consumption habits.
2) Emotional self-realisation through music is now linked to status competition. [55]
In the West (and under globalization arguably throughout the world now), where the average person’s access to music is in the form of music as a consumer commodity, there is an inevitable “social conditioning and commercial manipulation” [56] of what becomes the available resource - the music within reach, the music that comes to us, shaping us for the ‘good’ or otherwise, throughout childhood and teens - that “places us in the social world in a particular way.” [57]
Hesmondhalgh uses cases studies as well as research by various sociologists and social theorists to explore various angles of how self-identity comes under negative pressure under modern capitalism, and how music is implicated or exploited in this process, leading him to claim that “music’s power to enable self-making is constrained, limited and damaged”. [58]
There is no space to properly explore these issues here, but Hesmondhalgh shows that where it seems Frith is assuming free choice and positive idealism in music’s ‘self-making’ potential via the aesthetic/ethic model, this power is clearly not always positive and consciously formed, and is certainly open to manipulation by wider social forces.
Asher and Merrill concur: “The discourse of ethics and aesthetics from a post-modern position cannot be separated from the discourse of power, excess, oppression, careerism, media exploitation, genocide, capitalism, migrations, schizophrenia – all of which constitute in this period of late modernism the technologies and practices for the aestheticization of the self.” [59]

[50] Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind. (Harper Collins, 1992).
[51] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[52] David Hesmondhalgh, “Towards a critical understanding of music, emotion and self?identity,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 11 (2008): p. 329-343.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Ibid.
[55] David Hesmondhalgh, “Towards a critical understanding of music, emotion and self?identity,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 11 (2008): p. 329-343.
[56] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[57] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[58] David Hesmondhalgh, “Towards a critical understanding of music, emotion and self?identity,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 11 (2008): p. 329-343.
[59] Lyell Asher and Robert Merrill, Ethics/Aesthetics: A Post-Modern Position, (Maisonneuve Press, 1988).

Connecting all this theory to some real-world examples, MacDonald, Hargreaves & Miell use Social Identity Theory to describe ‘Music In Identities’ [60], and they discuss the powerful role of music in forming youth culture identities (which links to Levitin’s work as mentioned, as well as to consumer culture of course), as well as the role of music in enacting other cultural/ethnic/national identities (from traditional dances to national anthems), with both arenas being vastly influenced by various economic and political stakeholders.
Links between ethics and aesthetics have also been explored by various sociological studies of sub-cultures – for example punk has been well documented, with the anti-authoritarian, anti-elitist, DIY ethic being embodied in a raw, accessible, DIY aesthetic [61]. These links can also can be found elsewhere for example in the aggressive extroverted aesthetic of the Lambeg drum on militaristic Orange Order Marches in Northern Ireland [62] or the peaceful, meditative aesthetics of Japanese shakuhachi suizen [63] and ecumenical Christian chants in Taizé, France [64].
A key issue remains though - Frith’s approach of ‘reverse-homology’, raises the question of exactly how the music embodies or comes to embody the identity it forms – is he guilty of an unfounded ‘musical essentialism’ here? Negus and Velázquez explore this problem in some depth, pointing out:
[W]e surely have to assume that it’s ‘‘folk’’ music, or ‘‘Irish’’ music, or ‘‘Latin’’ music, to be able to argue that it’s constructing us with a particular ‘‘folk’’, ‘‘Latin’’ or ‘‘Irish’’ identity… [I]f both sides of this equation were to be equally non-essentialist, then we would have to accept that any type of musical sound (however categorised) could ‘‘construct’’ us any type of social identity. [65]

[60] Raymond A. R. MacDonald, David J. Hargreaves and Dorothy Miell, Musical Identities, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002).
[61] Roger Sabin, Lucy OBrien, Andy Medhurst, Mark Sinker et al., Punk Rock: So What? (Routledge 2002)
[62] D. Bryan, Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition and Control. (Pluto Press, 2000)
[63] R. Brooks, Blowing Zen: Finding an Authentic Life. (Sentient Publications, 2011)
[64] Judith Marie Kubicki and Jacques Berthier, Liturgical Music as Ritual Symbol: A Case Study of Jacques Berthier's Taizé Music, (Peeters Publishers, 1999)
[65] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145

My view is that whilst some elements of a musical aesthetic may arguably have basic or ‘essential’ properties (psychoacoustics, linguistic or speech-like mimetics, structural characteristics - fast/slow, loud/quiet, etc), the way they become semiotically linked to a given collective identity is often complex and arbitrary (though potentially traceable either environmentally, historically, homologically or otherwise), and always socially constructed (though often not consciously so). Consequently aesthetic meaning within that collective is contingent upon these multiple factors, so the ability to ‘read’ and interpret the aesthetic (in a truly emic rather than etic sense) must be culturally learned, which impacts greatly on the individual identity ‘produced’ by engaging with the music. It defines exactly what they are ‘taking on’ in the process, consciously or not.
‘Mis-reading’ by outsiders could therefore shape their own identities in unpredictable ways (we are in a postmodern age after all), or simply result in a ‘non-identification’, apathy, ambivalence, or to use Negus and Velázquez’s word – detachment [66]. ‘Correct’ readings could also result in the same, where the listener’s difference, non-belonging, or disagreement is accentuated by the music. Also perhaps where a person lacks the ability to read the aesthetic altogether it will simply not be read, so the music (and all thoughts of identity) will be ignored as irrelevant.
All of which leads us to see the logical, if slightly disheartening reality: given the unique properties of a person’s subjective experience, all responses to music - its aesthetics, ethics, and potential connected identity - will be particular to that person at that moment, no matter how ‘correct’, leaving us with a much more complicated jigsaw than Frith seems to suggest.

[66] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145

5. Case study: ‘Man Bieau P’tit Jèrri’

What follows is a brief case study and musicological reflection, highlighting some of the issues I have just discussed. As we will see, these issues show that whilst music does offer the potential to be an important tool for identity formation and maintenance, there are significant limitations even in a context such as this where music is being actively employed to enact and engender collective identity - in this case cultural identity on the island of Jersey.
The 9th May is a public holiday in Jersey, known as ‘Liberation Day’, celebrating the long-awaited official surrender of the occupying Nazi forces on that day in 1945. There is always a large-scale formal celebration in the capital, St. Helier, and live music always forms a part of this. ‘Man Bieau P’tit Jèrri’ is a song which is performed every year in a ‘traditional’ style [67] - as a genre it would be characterized as an early 1900s ‘music hall’ ballad - the style is slow, sentimental and nostalgic, usually arranged for brass band and solo vocal, with the audience encouraged to ‘sing-along’ on the chorus. The melody is very long and meandering, falling into three sections – a verse and ‘pre-chorus’ in 4/4 time, and a chorus in 3/4. A slight tension is built with the pre-chorus moving to the relative minor and making use of a III major chord instead of the natural median (to the original diatonic root that is - dominant 7th chord to the relative minor i.e. E7 in the key of C), drawing out the emotional ardour and yearning with a rallentando just prior to the the chorus, now in 3/4 time, which peaks in pitch at the word ‘Oh!’, and resolves naturally. The song is very popular and has achieved particular cultural significance as an ‘unofficial anthem’ of the island partly because of its increased poignancy during the war years (for example it was one of the highlights of a certain morale-boosting charity concert given before the end of the Nazi occupation [68]) because it is sung in the language of Jèrriais (a dialect of Norman French native to Jersey, which the German soldiers could not understand), and because the lyrics are explicitly patriotic [see appendix 1], sung in a rousing, overtly emotive vocal style typical of the era - extroverted, rhythmically ‘straight’ and employing a certain amount of vibrato.
Given all of this, the aesthetic is clearly embodying a sentimental form of conservative patriotic cultural identity and community solidarity, articulated through musical and lyrical conventions of the pre-war era. There is also a ceremonial aspect of repeated annual re-enactment with the clear intention to pass this on from generation to generation, with the hope possibly being that this performance will help shape the cultural identity of the young people present, as well as galvanize the strongly held feelings of the older generations.

[67] “Beautiful Jersey”, 2006; Accessed January 12, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/jersey/content/articles/2006/05/09/lib61_beautiful_jersey_feature.shtml
[68] “1944: Patriotic songs under Occupation”, 2013; Accessed January 12, 2014. http://officedujerriais.blogspot.com/2013/04/1944-patriotic-songs-under-occupation.html

Cassie is a 9 year-old Jersey-born girl who attended the Liberation Day celebration as a member of the Girl Guides. She lives with her Mum, who is from Newcastle, and younger brother. I conducted a short interview with her about her memory of the 9th May [see appendix 2], which shows how all five ‘issues’ I’ve described above seem to be at play, and how this particular performance failed to positively contribute to her cultural identity.
Clearly, there is a wider context here. Jèrriais was already a moderately endangered language in 1945, Jersey having become increasingly anglicised in the decades prior to World War Two, and since 1945 it has been in what many see as terminal decline. Not all schools even teach Jèrriais to a basic level and it is rarely heard in public now. There is also a specific context to consider – leaving aside whether or not Cassie is an ‘Episodic’ or ‘Diachronic’ person (‘issue 1’), or whether she was attending voluntarily, or enjoying having to “stand in a line” – she found the event itself “quite boring”. Cassie has obviously not been taught Jèrriais (‘issue 2’), is not exposed to it at home, and apparently at no point did anyone explain to the Girl Guides anything about the song and its significance on the day. The basic language barrier would also contribute to her lack of engagement not only because she couldn’t understand the words, but because the unintelligible sounds would have been likely to make her ‘switch off’ – which brings me to the music. It is tempting to explain away Cassie’s apathy and lack of identification by the context almost irrespective of the music (though if her favourite boy band were to sing it that might have helped), but clearly the fact that it sounded “old-fashioned” contributed to her lack of engagement: “It’s not really my music so I didn’t concentrate on it”. Context is of course crucial to gaining access to the ‘truth value’ of any given aesthetic, but the specifically musical part of that context is that the musical structures, form, timbre, harmonic symbolism, melodic length and vocal style make the music almost as unintelligible to Cassie as the lyrics. This is in part because she has never been specifically shown how to ‘read’ this particular aesthetic (‘issues 2 and 4’), but also, I would argue, potentially because her musical ‘palette’ has been limited by the irresistible power of the dominant (and musically narrow) celebrity pop culture that is her only musical resource – “whatever’s on the telly. You know – what’s in the charts.” (‘issue 2’, and arguably, ‘issue 3’). This being the case, she has most likely ‘been shaped’ to expect to respond to what has become known in musicological academia as “Black Atlantic Rhythm” [69] with its inherent “structural and psychological” effects [70] . Anything else is not ‘her music’. Is it possible that a broader musical ‘vocabulary’ would have given her more of a chance of identifying with unfamiliar sounds? Far from increasing Cassie’s sense of cultural identity as a Jersey-born young person, could it be that this experience would actually alienate and distance her from that possibility (‘issue 3’), partly because of the ambivalence created by the musical disjuncture?

[69] Jeff Pressing, “Black Atlantic Rhythm: Its Computational and Transcultural Foundations.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 19 (2002): p. 285-310.
[70] Ibid.

6. Conclusion

As the case study shows, the overall picture is complex (‘issue 5’), but that is exactly my point – Frith’s model seems both too simplistic and too optimistic in my view - as I hope I have shown. Identity comes “from the outside” [71] in a wider sense than Frith seems to appreciate. Music can certainly express, enact, and shape the process of identity, however this capability is not only limited in the positive sense in terms of the manifold contingencies of context, but because it is so wholly dependent on powerful external dynamics (social, economic, historical, geographical etc) there is a negative aspect to this potential which must be considered. The fact that in some contexts music may not be involved with identity at all, may sometimes be totally extraneous, or may even provide a “retreat from identities” [72] is also worth consideration.
As Negus and Velazquez have argued, we would do well to adopt “approaches that are able to embrace more nuanced and less reductionist notions of how music may connect with, become part of, or be totally irrelevant to our sense of self and collectivity” [73], suggesting that musicological discussion should “retain a sense of musical experience as simultaneously involving expression/reflection and construction, belonging and disaffiliation, fixedness and temporality, the corporeal and incorporeal.” [74] The tapestry of identity is intricate, as is its relationship with music, which will always involve many extra-musical threads - so a careful discussion and analysis of all the interwoven contributory factors will always be necessary to really understand how music may or may not influence the process of constructing an identity. A musicologist who can truly interpret all of those factors would be doing very well.

[71] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[72] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145
[73] Ibid.
[74] Ibid.


Bibliography


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Brooks, R., Blowing Zen: Finding an Authentic Life. (Sentient Publications, 2011)

Bryan, D., Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition and Control. (Pluto Press, 2000)

DeNora, T., Music in Everyday Life, (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

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Kubicki, J. M., and Berthier, J., Liturgical Music as Ritual Symbol: A Case Study of Jacques Berthier's Taizé Music, (Peeters Publishers, 1999)

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L’Office Du Jèrriais, “1944: Patriotic songs under Occupation”, 2013; Accessed January 12, 2014. http://officedujerriais.blogspot.com/2013/04/1944-patriotic-songs-under-occupation.html.

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Appendix 1

‘Man Bieau P'tit Jèrri’ (chorus lyrics):

Man bieau p'tit Jèrri, la reine des îles –
Lieu dé ma naissance,
tu m'pâsse bein près du tchoeu;
Ô, tchi doux souv'nîn
du bouôn temps qu'j'ai ieu
Quand j'pense à Jèrri, la reine des îles!
My beautiful Jersey, the queen of the islands
Place of my birth, you’re close to my heart;
Oh what a sweet memory of the good times I’ve had
When I think of Jersey, the queen of the islands!

Appendix 2
Transcript of short interview with Cassie:

What do you remember about Liberation day?

We were all dressed in our Girl Guide uniforms and had to stand in a line. There was a big crowd and it was quite boring.

Can you remember anything about the music you heard?

It was all old-fashioned – I didn’t know any of it. There were lots of musicians – a whole massive orchestra I remember.

How did you feel about the music – did you like it?

It’s not really my music so I didn’t concentrate on it. It was… alright.

Do you remember hearing a song called ‘Man Bieau P’tit Jerri’?

No, not at all.

Do you remember hearing any singing in Jèrriais?


That’s another language isn’t it? I do remember them singing in another language but I didn’t understand it… and I don’t remember anything else about it really.

What kind of music do you like?

Just… whatever’s on the telly. You know – what’s in the charts.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Pins, Strings, and Other Things...

If you look closely at the door of the States of Jersey Building Members Entrance you’ll find a tiny pin-hole. I made that hole on Friday night, the 28th September 2012, after a gig with my band – Badlabecques - in the Royal Square… Allow me to explain.

The gig was our album launch – the world’s first pop-folk album sung entirely in the indigenous language of Jersey, Jèrriais, which is a dialect of Norman-French that evolved in the period after the Viking conquests of modern day Normandy and beyond.
Jèrriais is now an endangered language, and what used to be the everyday mother-tongue of the whole island is currently only spoken by less than 3% of the population. The decline in the use and influence of Jèrriais over last 200 or so years has been partly a by-product of an increasingly Anglicised commercial culture, and partly by design – by the early 1900’s Jèrriais was largely seen as the peasants language – for fishermen and farmers, irrelevant to the educated elite who dealt in English and French. It was literally beaten out of school children who were told that it would ruin their ‘proper’ French. My Gran, who spoke only French and Jèrriais until she went to school, soon learned English.
But despite this (and the intervening Nazi occupation during World War II) Jèrriais has survived, thanks in no small part to the efforts of a dedicated few who understood its historical and cultural importance, literary heritage, and community value; and thankfully now it is actually being taught in Jersey schools in the hopes of fostering a new generation of Jèrriais speakers that can at least appreciate something of that unique value, even if they don’t end up speaking the language fluently. There are some great Jèrriais poets – From Wace ‘the father of Jèrriais’, to A.A. Le Gros, and E.J. Luce amongst others. As a bouôn Jèrriais myself it is part of who I am, my heritage, my story.

Earlier this year I was commissioned by L’Office Du Jèrriais to set six Jèrriais songs to more contemporary arrangements, to be used in the schools programme. Having recently returned to the island I was already interested in researching traditional Jèrriais folk songs so I was pleased to have a good excuse to get involved. Geraint Jennings from L’Office Du Jèrriais showed me the songs and taught me how to sing in an accent approaching authentic... I knocked up some demos and ended up getting booked to play at Jersey’s ‘Folklore Festival’, which also saw appearances from Van Morrison and John Cooper Clarke. So I needed a band, and thus, with a little help from my friends, Badlabecques was born.
To cut a long story short, we decided to try and make a full album, got some funding (from L’Office Du Jèrriais, The Don Balleine Trust, L'Assembliee d'Jerriais, The Jersey Arts Trust, Le Congrès des Parlers Normands et Jèrriais, and individual donations), hit the studio, and ‘Hèque Badlabecques’ is the somewhat quirky but fun and occasionally beautiful result. As I’ve been learning Jèrriais and discovering my own heritage, it has been my pleasure and privilege to lead the band and help create this unique cultural project, the first ‘pop’ album in Jèrriais, and a little milestone in the story of Jersey. I hope that the popularity of this unique group and the music will help contribute in a small but significant way to the awareness and appreciation of Jèrriais, as well as the particular songs in our repertoire, and the wider social and cultural life of this beautiful island.

But Friday night also commemorated the courageous act of a few hundred Jèrriais speaking peasants on the 28th September 1769, known as the ‘Corn Riot’ or ‘Reform Day’. Suffering poverty and exploitation under the distinctly undemocratic dictatorship of one Charles Lemprière and his cronies, desperate and unable to pay rents due on the 29th September, a large group of “artisans, day-labourers, and other common people” stormed the Royal Court (which at that time basically wrote the law, as well as ‘applied’ it), and demanded reforms, essentially for a fairer and more democratic society. Of course, utopia did not arrive overnight, but important changes (not least a separate law-making chamber) did come about in the struggles that followed. A significant date then, which should be celebrated – an ideal day to launch our album of pop songs in the original “people’s language” - Jèrriais.

Now according to the historians, the 28th September rebels read out a list of demands for policy changes, many of which eventually happened. So, in keeping with the spirit of the day, and as a celebration of the level of democracy and freedom we have today - along with a desire to look forwards - we decided to have a ‘Reform Day People’s Policies’ box, more or less in the style of Mark Thomas’ ‘People’s Manifesto’. The audience put forward their own ideas for reform, humorous or otherwise, and we read a few out, putting the ‘vote’ to the audience.
We had some wide-ranging policy suggestions, from electoral reform to free cider and bean crock (see below for details), some complementary, some conflicting, some funny, some poignant, all interesting; and in the name of democracy and freedom, I sellotaped them all together and pinned them to the door of the States Assembly building.

The thing is, despite a fair few changes in Jersey in the last 250 years, few could deny that our democracy, economy, and community is once again in desperate need of reform. We have a ‘government’ totally captured by a finance industry that is at best morally dubious and at worst deeply corrupt. The economy is faultering, unemployment continues to be high especially amongst young people, whilst the minimum wage is (in real terms, allowing for the high cost of living) amongst the lowest in Europe, rents are high and the average price of a family home in 2012 is still around 15 times the average wage. Voter turnout is consistently poor from an electorate that is disenfranchised, disaffected and largely kept ignorant by design. The actual voting system is completely wonky, and the results hopelessly undemocratic and balanced in favour of the wealthy by virtue of where they live. Most working people just don’t believe the government represents their interests, that engagement is futile and dissent to be feared. An increasingly two-tier society has seen the tax burden shifted onto the poorer end whilst the ruling hegemony enjoy their ‘haven’. And I haven’t even started on the really dark stuff

So it was a double privilege to stand on that little stage on Friday night and sing some simple folk songs in Jèrriais, the people’s language, reading out the ‘people’s policies’ in front of the States building and Royal Court.

For me, that little pin-hole in the Members Entrance of the States of Jersey Building represents a tiny dent in the well-oiled propaganda machine of the status quo, and perhaps a prick of the conscience of a greedy and guilty elite that haven’t really changed their spots since 1769.

All rise for the toast – “La libèrté, la démocratie!”



The People’s Policies, Royal Square, 28th September 2012

In no particular order:

1. Every year on the 28th September to celebrate Jersey Reform Day there should be free bean crock and cider given out in the Royal Square!

2. More public holidays are needed.

3. Introduce a progressive tax system that doesn’t penalise the poor.

4. Low tax so there’s more money to spend on my son.

5. We need more cake!

6. The States of Jersey should buy Plemont ex-holiday campsite for the people of Jersey.

7. STOP BEING OPPRESSIVE AND DISTANT FROM POPULATION

8. Live music in Royal Square every weekend during the summer – good for tourists and locals!

9. MORE FUNDING FOR THE ARTS!

10. Adopt Human Rights legislation especially for children. Walls and trees have more rights at the moment.

11. Free Jèrriais lessons for all Jersey residents!

12. Inject member[s] of the electoral commission with truth serum to tell us how we can have a genuine democracy and get a government that really represents the interests of all the people of Jersey.

13. Better servi[c]e for medication. And stop people littering. Be eco-friendly.

14. States members live in States housing and on the minimum wage for a year and see if we get any improvement in States housing and increasing the minimum wage.

15. Have more live acts like the great Badlabe[c]ques in the Royal Square every Friday. ☺
16. Free public transport for all.

17. Lower private school subsidiaries [sic] ! (For further research/information I’d recommend reading the Political Ponderings of Sam Mezec!) google it.

18. LESS CARS! Please.

19. Could people who donate memorial benches/seats not not [sic] inscription plaques. Anonimity [sic] would be best. It’s getting very morbid and makes people SAD!

20. LEGALISATION AND TAXATION OF MARIJUANA!

21. Cars – Nationalise all cars worth over £80,000 – the owners to drive you for free.

22. A more transparent, less secretive government.

23. Make Jersey more secular. Enough of fairy tales!

24. Free chocolate for all women once a month!

25. Once a year States members, lawyers, and head[s] of banks must endure one hour of the sticks in the Royal Square for us peasants to pelt with vegetables because even if we can’t prove they’ve been naughty… they probably have.




Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Music & Freedom Podcast Episode One!

Episode one of 'Music and Freedom' – a 44 minute sequence of free music, poetry and other words and sounds relating to that mysterious and elusive state of being, hosted and produced by yours truly Kit Ashton.

Sit back, relax and be free...

Kx

Music & Freedom Episode1 by KitAshton

1. Intro: Kit Ashton
2. Fela Kuti – Water No Get Enemy
3. Martin Luther King clip - ‘We Want To Be Free’
4. Chicago – Free
5. E.E. Cummings - ‘As Freedom Is A Breakfast Food’ (read by
Graham White)
6. Brian Eno – An Ascent
7. Noam Chomsky quote from ‘Language And Freedom’ (read by
Graham White)
8. Philip Ball quote from ‘The Music Instinct’ (read by Graham White)
9. Bartok – Excerpt from Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119: Allegro Vivace - (Presto)
10. Public Enemy - Excerpt from Rebel Without A Pause
11. Presente – ‘Después De La Ola’ (from The Freedom Archives)
12. The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize?
13. Nelson Mandela clip ‘Release Speech 1990’
14. Husky Rescue – My World
15. Kit Ashton – Aisle 21 Anarcho-synth (Feat. Noam Chomsky and a girl in a supermarket)
16. Meridel LeSueur – ‘The Bird Of Earth’ (from The Freedom Archives)
17. John Lennon – Power To The People
18. Marge Piercey – ‘Being Human’ (from The Freedom Archives)
19. Sweet Honey In The Rock – Breaths
20. Aung San Suu Kyi – BBC interview 2010
21. Fiona Apple – Better Than Fine

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Adrift on a Ghost Ship: Black Questions About The Soul of Rock'n'Roll.

It's about 3am, 31st Dec 2009, I'm on a boat, very slowly chugging north across the English Channel. I'm looking out into the pitch black icy water, feeling quite literally adrift, and I'm thinking...

Ten years ago I was meandering through a degree in music (yes I'm that old). Since that time the whole history of music, and of humanity, has been on fast-forward.
Whilst the digital age has freed and democratised access and interaction with knowledge and culture; globalisation and the march of consumer capitalism has absorbed and hypnotised billions of us; all this underscored by a counterpoint of religious extremism, 'terror', nuclear proliferation, climate change ecocide, and celebrity narcissism...
It ain't lookin pretty for us folks, but what has all of this got to do with rock'n'roll music?

Well why do we make music in the first place?
I mean 'we' as a species of highly evolved hominids, not those few slack-jawed brainless plastic puppets mostly known as 'pop stars' and 'rock stars' who rape the beauty of music in the service of fame and money games...
We love music and we make music because it is profoundly human, instinctive, immediately beautiful, intensely meaningful, powerful, healing, inspiring, to express the inexpressable, reach for the unreachable, to dance to, make love to, cry to; we make it to celebrate, express and engage in this thing called life, and for all the other countless reasons we need to make music, we make make music.
It's just part of what we are.
And what about rock'n'roll?
For me (like most people) it was always about freedom, rebellion against whatever real or metaphorical constraints are forced upon us – that's what those rhythms and electric guitars are all about – well, that and shagging of course.
That was its power and its beauty as an art form, which must have been unbelievably exciting as it was born and grew up in a technologically expansive modern world that seemed to offer a limitless human future for the optimists amongst us- and for the few punks and oddballs that raised concerns, music was still part of the dialogue.

But what happened?
Recently as I've been mixing my first album and thinking about my own relationship with music I've found myself acknowledging and questioning the growing feeling that something somewhere has gone profoundly wrong with the way we (as in most humans, particularly in the 'Developed' world) understand and appreciate music.

Somewhere along the way have we quite literally sold our soul?
I'm starting to wonder whether in typically messy human style our creativity has gotten us everywhere and nowhere... Has the global marketplace, in the pursuit of profit, simultaneously funded and driven amazing artistic and technological exploration and innovation, at the same time as systematically fragmenting all genres into evermore granular 'product', eroding if not removing the genuine cultural power that music once enjoyed; homogenising everything into vapid consumer 'entertainment' once and for all?

Whether it was as an inspiring element of the mass-movements of the sixties, or the private magic of real folk music going back centuries; music once had a tangible power that was essentially disconnected to money. Sure, money was involved sometimes, sometimes not – but music had its own weight and momentum. Now that everything is more or less simply 'instant entertainment' of one kind or another music is a very disposable commodity, at once utterly diverse, ubiquitous and toothless, funnelled into the perfect machine which transforms all our best efforts into into little grains of silver and gold, or else worthless lead to be ignored...
So it seems these days new music has very little power to shock you, challenge you, change you like it could – will we ever have another Mozart offending pompous aristocracy, or another Elvis making good Catholic girls squeal and scream, another Shostakovich flipping the birdy to totalitarianism, or another gender-bending Ziggy Stardust on Top Of The Pops?
Can any new music really have IMPACT anymore?
I'm not talking about hype – the machine is very good a whipping that up and has no shortage of good consumer drones ready to play along as if the latest big thing is really the next Beatles - but really in what way does any of it MATTER like it once did?

I'm also not talking about propaganda – all art can (in it's own way) shape society and ideology but I think that should be a by-product, never an end in itself (and in any case that influence has largely gone too, save consumerist propaganda) - no that's not really the kind of impact I have in mind... I'm talking about those seminal moments where a record or performance makes a permanent mark on a collective conciousness – an inner ”holy shit”
moment that everybody feels but maybe can't quite describe.
As long as we as artists, as humans, buy into the current consumer marketplace of art is it somehow already sold-out, a stillborn sacrifice to the solid gold idol of Obsolescence?

But then again, as I'm thinking all this, sat on this creaky old ferry in the gloom, I'm wondering if any of these doubts are really justified or has it it in some way always been like this? Isn't this just more of the same age-old old tension between Art and Commerce? Wouldn't a perfect digital free market set the ideal conditions for real creative innovation - or have we entered a new age of permanent entertainment choice paralysis, an eternal 'meh' from the self-propagating MTV generation? Is the issue even about money per-se as much as our sleepwalking into an infinitely blasé über-po-mo nightmare of constant mediocrity?
But then artists have always had to make a living after all...
Or have they? As in, have they had to make a living out of their art or has some of the best art – the great art (like the great science) – been made independently of marketplace demands, funded from elsewhere, coming from a place of pure inquiry and necessary expression, offered up to the world (or not) in a spirit of human openness and generosity not as a means to a (potentially lucrative) end - not having to justify itself with demographics? If so did it depend on market forces to hold its little cultural light aloft or could it start its own cultural forest fire, damn the consequences? Could any music ever do that now?

Maybe I'm just being a typically conflicted, self-obsessed artist wrestling with my own material dilemmas, or am I really on to something here about the state of music today?
If so is it too late anyway – I mean where could we go from here in any case? Make all music free? Should I give away my work for free? How would that help change anything?
How would all this work in an ideal world and how could we get there from here?
I don't know... I'm adrift.



Post-script:

I do know that music is still immensely important for us on a personal level. In that most intimate of arenas – the ipod playlist – we are still moved, still addicted, our individual appetites (however compromised) still gnaw at us and drive us to need and to love music in ways which still echo our truest and most ancient desires. Maybe there's hope for us yet, even if I don't know what that looks like, or how I should look for it...

I guess I'm still hoping Nick Cave's Dad was right when he said “In the end it is Beauty that is going to save the world”.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Testing, testing 1,2,3...

Two.
Two.
One, two.
Two, two.
More top end up here please...?

Always useful to soundcheck before the real gig gets going.
I've started this blog as a space to ramble on and generally explore thoughts and ideas in more depth than Twitter (@Kit_Ashton) or the mini-blog on my own site (www.kitashton.com), which is really just a news feed...
I've got no idea what nonsense I'm going to come up with here, but I wanted to give myself an opportunity to find out. So here I am soundchecking...

One, two...

See you later when the house lights go down.