when i am in taiwan or elsewhere, my conversations with people working in the industry often include a backhanded compliment about what these producers, performers, or businesspeople call the “berklee sound.” berklee graduates, they say, impress everyone for their technical proficiency, and berklee graduates can be found staffing many studios and production companies. “but, you know,” these musicians add, “all of them have that berklee sound”
always the ethnographer, i ask what these musicians mean by the “berklee sound.” after all, i know that berklee is an amazingly diverse place both in terms of the student body and in terms of the genres of music represented at the institution. no one has given me a satisfactory answer to this question. under continued pressure from the ethnographer, they reply to my obtuse questions
“dj, man, just listen,” they say, “you know what i mean”
fortunately or unfortunately, i do. education at berklee does tend to a relatively standard approach across genres and often standard instrumental technique. vocal production is a case in point; so is the dominance of a specific form of jazz around berklee. when faced with unfamiliar musics or situations, berklee musicians often reach for this standard form, regardless of its appropriateness to the music in question. the result is a sound that is perhaps part of the berklee brand. this standard is good for branding berklee and in some ways benefits berklee graduates. yet, we might wonder whether this approach is enough to establish berklee’s leadership in global music communities. as an anthropologist working on ethnomusicological issues, i am also concerned that my friends’ comments about “that berklee sound” points out a real lack of engagement with other musics on their own terms
a recent concert at berklee hit these concerns home. a well attended and fascinating concert at the berklee performance center brought together members of one of berklee’s institutes and a group of traditional musicians from outside of berklee. the group of traditional musicians dazzled the audience with their ability to transport us musically to another world; if we were to open our senses to this music, it would have been deeply transformative. however, once the berklee musicians entered the stage, this other musical system became a mere ornament on a sound completely familiar to those of us around berklee. for all i know, the visiting musicians wanted their music to be absorbed within “that berklee sound.” i also do not know to what extent the berklee students and faculty who were part of the concert did learn from the visiting musicians. nonetheless, the concert performance seemed not to engage the music of the Other but to consume it, reducing it to fodder for music that can only be called more of the same. again, one might think that the ability to absorb or consume other musics into an existing musical system is a good thing. others might wonder whether such an approach is adequate either ethically or musically
encounters with musics of the Other can result in appropriation, consumption, or dialogue. because these encounters always happen within a set of power relationships, the spectre of colonialism is never far away; and i suspect that berklee’s position within the music industry distorts the spaces in which such encounters might occur. for this reason, we need to work even harder to avoid approaches to these encounters that consume musics of the Other as “styles” that might, in isolation from their existing musical system, enrich our own.
the difference between what i call consumption and dialogue depends upon our willingness to give ourselves more fully to the Other. musics of the Other operate from different premises of what music is, how it works, how it is structured, and how one might evaluate it. in our encounter, we thus miss most of the music if we assume that we can reduce it to something fully knowable with our existing modes of listening and performance. so the question for us would be: what would it mean to have a kind of humility in our encounter with other musics opting to listen and learn instead of reducing other musics to the terms of what we already know?
in evaluating our approach, the sonic guideline should be our transformation: have we changed the way we conceive of musical practices? can we hear that transformation when we play with or in response to the Other? you might note that by this transformation, i do not mean that we have to sound like the Other. such an idea might lead far too easily to appropriation. in our dialogue, we might sound very different from the Other and still register our encounter. we might wish to err on the side of studying how to sound like the Other as a starting point; however, because it is only in this fashion, by allowing the Other to transform us, that we can ever approach the music of the Other in a meaningful way: such a transformation would open our musical world
Beautifully written, well thought out and thought provoking. Here’s what it got me
What’s wrong with the Other learning from “us”. After all, in their world, they are the
mainstream, quotidian sound that everybody in their community hears all the time.
That would make the Berklee sound “The Other”, wouldn’t it? Yes it would.
I’m sympathetic to the author’s point of view, though. It’s like when you go to some
far a way land, turn on the TV and see the local version of “American Idol” or some
other form of idiocy – only it’s Kenyan Idol or what have you.
I truly enjoyed this piece!
Kevin–Thanks for the message. I’m in Taiwan right now, doing some more work on a far ocean fishing project. Although I agree with you, in that musical (meta)communication is one of the most important means we have for intercultural exchange, I’d like to qualify your remarks on the Berklee sound being “Other.” In some ways, it might be defined as such, however, the field of musical exchange is a bit biased in favor of western popular musics. In fact, as often have to point out to my students at Berklee, American popular music or its analogues dominate many urban soundscapes globally. So, the situation you describe is a reality for many places. So for many musicians globally, self and other seem very complicated, indeed! If I’m taking a bit of a polemical stance, it’s because I want to encourage conversation on these kinds of issues at Berklee and beyond. Thanks for the comments. I’m going to keep writing and thinking!