Sunday, 8 February 2009

Kofi Agawu Renaissance Mahlerian

Kofi Agawu, professor at Harvard, is a "rare scholar whose professional interests cross traditional boundaries within musical scholarship, encompassing music theory, ethnomusicology, and historical musicology".

He's a Mahler specialist, contributing the chapter "Prolonged counterpoint in Mahler" in Stephen Hefling's important Mahler Studies of 1997. He's also written extensively on musical analysis and theory. What takes him outside the realm of the average academic, though, is that his scholarship is informed by much wider sources than western music alone. Indeed, his work goes to the very heart of what music is, a means of communication that springs from specifics of relationships within society and language.

Agawu's "Music as Discourse : Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music" was issued late last year from OUP. "Working at the nexus of musicology, ethnomusicology, and music philosophy and aesthetics, Agawu presents a synthetic and innovative approach to musical meaning which argues deftly for the thinking of music as a discourse in itself--composed not only of sequences of gestures, phrases, or progressions, but rather also of the very philosophical and linguistic props that enable the analytical formulations made about music as an object of study. The book provides extensive demonstration of the pertinence of a semiological approach to understanding the fully-freighted language of romantic music, stresses the importance of a generative approach to tonal understanding, and provides further insight into the analogy between music and language."

Translation perhaps is that as music is a culturally defined means of expression. Agawu's perspectives range widely, well beyond the limited confines of one cultural assumption. The western classical tradition is only one thread in the richly woven fabric of human creativity. Agawu is Ewe, from a distinctive, thriving culture in Southern Ghana and Togo. Steve Reich's explorations in African drumming were based on Ewe tradition, but there's infinitely more to Ewe culture than Steve Reich. Check out numerous books, CDs, DVDs. Many of them by Agawu, even.

Anyone can talk about multi cultural, multi discipline. Few can actually do it from within. For me, Agawu's work is interesting because he's at the top of western music studies, yet he's not tied into one way of thinking about music, or society for that matter. Here is a link to the new book, Music as Discourse.

Agawu means a lot to me because "comparative culture" or whatever you could call it, has been my whole life. It's a field that's rarely explored because most people just don't imbibe multiple cultures and instinctively pick up on the subtle influences. Yet this world is increasingly becoming a global network, society is changing faster than we can comprehend. In a tiny way this blog is doing something. Please look on the labels for history and especially my special subject, South China and Macau, which for centuries was the interface between many different cultures, and in the process, acquired its own polyglot identity. It's something most people know nothing about, so what's on this blog is pretty unique. I don't know anything about Africa but my best mate has Ghanaian roots (Ewe, too) so there are a few things here on Ghana too.

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