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An Act of Piety

Peter Fletcher repays his debt to music, to every music in the world

When all is read and put to bed, Peter Fletcher's World Musics in Context is not a very good book. But without question it is an extraordinary one. So as one of the few to have perused it cover to cover since it was published in 2001--I'd bet there aren't yet 200 of us, Oxford University Press employees included--I feel called to honor its existence.

Fletcher was a moderately successful British educator, conductor, and critic whose only other book appeared in 1981 and vanished soon after. He died in 1996 at 60, well before his gift to the world saw print. Considering its scope, which is nothing less than all the musics of every "level" ever created, its length of under 700 pages is modest. But it is an act of madness regardless. Never mind how good it is. Why did he undertake to write it at all?

Egomania is not the answer--neither Fletcher's competent style nor his tentative pronouncements partake of the grandiose. The book is more an act of piety, in the best sense. Fletcher clearly absorbed the full force of the great classical composers' ability "to enter an exclusive, visionary world, creating works of such depth as to deny the past, the present, and the future." Rather than scoffing at these claims, which as an atheist I usually do, I assume that Fletcher was one of those troubled souls whose experience of classical music's formal peculiarities enlarged him spiritually, rather than just filling him with hot air like most of his co-religionists--enlarged him so much so that it sensitized him to the injustices and absurdities perpetrated by classical music as political reality and ideological construct. He is especially offended by classical music's abandonment of social and religious functions, which were why music was originally practiced, and by its pretensions to degrees of seriousness and technical sophistication regularly declared unique even though they have their equivalents in traditional musics all over the world.

For Fletcher, all of this was complicated if not inspired by the '60s. He loves the Beatles in particular, and was tremendously disappointed that their musical breadth and reach didn't herald the right revolution. He hates Western arrogance and exploitation, especially as regards so-called primitive cultures. Hence 1981's Roll Over Rock, which begins as a defense of pop and ends in a long, hopeful disquisition on the alternatives proffered by 20th-century composers, with warm nods toward Bartók and Ives. And hence World Musics in Context, its message encapsulated by its structure: except for 25 pages on the ancient Greeks, Christians, and Jews, it doesn't get to Europe until page 409, and proceeds to Latin America on page 481.

Fletcher doesn't believe all music is one--he skips Oceania and Native America as anomalous, asserts early on that eastern Asia constitutes its own realm, and shows how the Indian subcontinent has resisted musical assimilation. But he believes western Asia and Europe are completely intertwined, with the 3,000 societies of sub-Saharan Africa sharing characteristics that enrich the weave. In all major cultures, moreover, local/rural folk musics have fed into broader classical styles; those that haven't, Fletcher ignores. Popular music arose, he ventures, when the first kings created classical music by arrogating religious music to their own glory, and court and marketplace responded with music for dance (social, hence salutory) and entertainment (alienating, hence problematic). As a humanitarian who distrusts power, Fletcher doesn't much like these kings or the panjandrums who followed in their wake. But the intensity of his religious belief, meaning his musical experience, compels him to cast in his lot with elites, because it's elites that nurture the best music. Although on occasion he doubles back and puts in a word for the "folk," he is especially insistent that significant music requires arduous training.

Some of Fletcher's generalizations are more credible than others; a few are provocatively original. World Musics in Context, clearly, is his way of proving he has the right to make them. What sticks in the mind are its descriptions, tricky to follow for the unarduously trained, of a multiplicity of musical syntaxes--not the details, but how profuse and elaborate they are. Unfortunately, there's no way for any single person to know how many he got right. But I can say this--good '60s anti-imperialist that he is, he hates American power and is atrocious on American pop, even the African strains he admires. His sourcing in this connection is sketchy and unreliable (two Alan Lomax liner notes loom large), and has not been expanded since Roll Over Rock, from which he cribs liberally and sometimes verbatim. In addition, the distinguished ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, Fletcher's major reviewer to date, cites several inaccuracies and omissions in his account of Persian music. Figure there are others elsewhere.

Nettl also points out how dependent Fletcher is on The New Grove, The New Oxford History of Music, and other standard tomes. But what does he expect? Not even Nettl has read as extensively in these enormous works as Fletcher, who then did us the service of boiling them down as best he could. Having sold in hardcover at a look-Ms./Mr.-librarian price of $150 and then $170, Fletcher's Folly is now available in paper for $45. It has an index, although I note with dismay that one of the two references to Irving Berlin got lost--the one that doesn't insult him. Still, where else are you going to find all this stuff so conveniently? As acts of madness go, World Musics in Context has its uses.

Peter Fletcher's Fun Facts
(If Facts They Be)

  • "Outside Western Europe (and in Western Europe too, until about the twelfth century), both art and folk musics commonly consist of a single melodic line, at times supported by drones, or other notes, but never supported by functional harmony."

  • The folk musics of Western Europe are far more uniform than those of Eastern Europe.

  • Fourth-century Christian chants are still performed in Aksun, Ethiopia.

  • The Babylonians discovered the mathematics of pitch a millennium-plus before the Greeks. They also buried musicians alive with dead kings.

  • In the great African kingdoms, a drummer who failed to render an ancestor's name correctly was subject to execution. So were Aztec youths who erred during ritual dances.

  • Aztecs constructed panpipes from the bones of dead enemies and preceded each note thereupon with a cough called a chuff.

  • Islamic legists didn't proscribe the creation of secular music--just listening to it.

  • The Westernizing Ataturk banned Turkish music from state radio when he took over in 1923. After ordinary Turks turned to radio from Egypt and Lebanon, Arabic music was also banned. Neither ploy worked.

  • Classical music was introduced early to Latin America, where it never took, and late to North America, where it did.

  • The opera house built during the rubber boom in Iquitos, Brazil, 1,800 miles up the Amazon, is now a police HQ.

  • Keyboards were originally played with the fists.

  • There were seven black musicians and three black dancers in Queen Elizabeth I's retinue.

  • Just as in Africa, "music is a means of obtaining happiness rather than expressing it," so Frederick Douglass observed that slaves sang to make themselves happy, not to express their happiness.

  • "Melisma is Greek for 'song.'"

Village Voice, Mar. 2, 2004