Friday, September 22

Series of concerts at UCLA showcases global music, culture


A&E


By Howard Ho

DAILY BRUIN REPORTER

hho@media.ucla.edu

  EVE COHEN/Daily Bruin

A gamelan ensemble practices in the ethnomusicology department
in preparation for the world music festival.

World music has come into the foreground over the last few
decades with various fusion movements and artists crossing over
boundaries. It is a little known fact that UCLA virtually pioneered
the field of ethnomusicology, the study of how ethnic backgrounds
influence musical aesthetics around the world.

“This is the oldest ethnomusicology department in the
country and the largest. It’s the most diverse in terms of
faculty specialty,” said ethnomusicology professor Tara
Browner.

Spreading its wings once a year, the ethnomusicology department
presents its free Festival of World Music, a series of concerts in
Schoenberg Hall showcasing the various student performance
ensembles of music from around the world. The series starts today,
and will continue through June 2, culminating in the representation
of 11 ethnic groups from five continents. There will be no shows on
May 24, 25, 26, or 31. Unlike traditional western ensembles, such
as band and orchestra, most other cultures have very different
musical aesthetics; some do not even use music notation. Afro-Cuban
drumming, for example, is commonly learned through hearing the
leader play a rhythm and imitating it, rather than following a
written score. While notation may, in some ways, make the learning
process easier, it tends to impede the more general understanding
of a culture’s musical sensibility.

“You learn by ear and repetition and memorization but not
notes. The idea behind it is that, in order to really understand
the music of a culture, you need to learn it the way those people
learn it,” said Browner, who specializes in North American
Indian music, as well as performs in the Brazilian ensemble.

Some of the cultural music will extend to elements beyond just
the cool sounds. The Chinese ensemble (appearing tomorrow) features
nearly 100 performers doing lion dances, fan dances, and even a
staged performance of a Chinese opera excerpt. Unlike the
Afro-Cuban ensemble, the Chinese ensemble uses ancient Chinese
musical notation. The concert features percussion, pipa (a Chinese
guitar), erhu (a Chinese violin), and the qin (a plucked string
instrument which Confucius himself played).

“I believe that this is probably one of the only places
outside of China where you can study these instruments. I love
it,” said Mike Gubman a first-year ethnomusicology student,
who plays a qin solo that dates from 1864 for the upcoming
concert.

Perhaps most telling of UCLA’s rich ethnomusicology
tradition is the gamelan collection, which was acquired in 1958,
the first to be procured by an American university. Performing on
June 1, the Balinese ensemble will play several kebyar, or
modern-style gamelan songs. The gamelan is not a single instrument,
but is the entire orchestra of 26 instruments as a whole, which
covers roughly four octaves of range. The instruments themselves
are unique, featuring elaborate designs on a wooden frame which
suspends several bronze blocks that are tuned to a pentatonic (or
five-note) scale.

“Good quality instruments could be $50,000, the same as a
grand piano, but for that you get the whole thing, 26 different
instruments,” said Nyoma Wenten, the Balinese gamelan
director who also teaches gamelan at Cal Arts. While the upcoming
performances will display the progress of students learning new
instruments over the past year, the level of achievement tends to
be high. Some of the ensembles are near-professional level. Former
students return year after year to perform. However, any student
can join the ensembles, even if one’s previous musical
experience is non-existent.

“My students have very heavy loads for their own majors
and most are not music majors. My goal is that they learn Chinese
music while they enjoy it. I don’t want to push too hard. The
level they achieved in a year, some of them in a quarter, is
magnificent,” said Chi Li, director of the Chinese
ensemble.

The overarching purpose of the ethnomusicology department is to
bring other cultures and ways of experiencing art to UCLA students.
Unlike many western concerts that require audience silence for
music appreciation, many world music performances allow for
audience sing-a-long and various response calls that add to the
music. For a moment, listeners can be in contact with a world far
removed from Westwood.

“It’s bringing a piece of Korea or Brazil
here,” Browner said. “It’s bringing a little
piece of that culture that the audience can interact
with.”

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