Professors expand appreciation for ethnic music

Tyler Kundinger

What in the world is “world music”? For record companies, perhaps it’s no more than a marketing catch-all, including any traditional music outside the Western world. There are even sub-genres ,like global fusion, world fusion, ethnic fusion and “world beat,” at least according to Wikipedia’s two cents on the topic. Marketable? Yes. But for Brian Pertl, dean of the LU conservatory, and Sonja Downing, Professor of ethnomusicology and co-director of LU Gamelan, whatever “world music” represents means a whole lot more.

Dean Pertl and his association with LU and non-Western music stems all the way back to his years as an undergrad right here at Lawrence. He majored in trombone performance and, like most Lawrentians, he wanted to see the world and experience other cultures. When he received the Watson Fellow scholarship, he decided to spend his time and funding in Tibet and Australia, especially focusing on the Australian didjeridu (didgeridoo). In time, Pertl became highly proficient at the instrument.

After he finished his time in the land down under, his affections for the culture and its music led him to pursue a degree in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington.  

After three or four years’ study, Pertl was asked by Microsoft to lay sample tracks of the didjeridu, and it was from there that he landed a job editing and selecting audio samples of non-Western music for the World Atlas CD-ROM.

All the while, he kept lecturing, playing, and performing, and every three to four years he would come back and perform at Lawrence. He often expressed to the dean at the time that LU needed more diverse music to strengthen the understanding of Western music. In 2007, Pertl played a concert here that changed his career. From his performance in that concert and his new ideas, Pertl was offered the job as Dean of the Conservatory of Music.

When he took on the position in 2008, Pertl found that not much was going on other than Professor Dane Richeson’s work with students in West African percussion styles. It was at this time that Sonja Downing came to Lawrence as a fellow. With the urging of Dean Pertl, Downing soon became a professor.

Downing always had a passion for music. She majored in flute performance as an undergrad, but she also had a passion for other cultures. Studying and performing Balinese Gamelan allowed Downing to fuse these passions, and she became a member of the organization known as Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Remarkably, she toured in 2000 with the group in Bali. But she says this experience only raised more questions about the purpose and role of music in other cultures.

Curiosity led Downing to seek out a grad school with a strong program in ethnomusicology. For her, the music of other cultures is very important in gaining broader connections to our own traditions. Studying the music of other people takes us out of our comfort zone and gives us an expanded sense of what people can see or hear as beautiful. To experience multiple traditions can be so helpful to a musician studying traditional Western music or any music at all. For Dean Pertl, study of the didjeridu has led to deeper appreciation and understanding of Western traditions.

For those who are not aware, the didjeridu is indigenous to the Aborigines in Australia. The sound of the didjeridu is produced with the buzzing of the lips, much like a trumpet or other brass instrument. Capable of producing only one or two pitches, the instrument’s forte is the resonant amplification of subtle vowel shapes created by the player to achieve the sound remarkably distinctive of the didjeridu. Repetitive rhythmic gestures are also utilized extensively. As Pertl states poetically, “the didjeridu is about exploring within, diving through the universe of sound with one pitch.” This is unlike Western styles of music, which traditionally focus on the ability to play many notes-consider Shostakovich’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”.

“Listening within” a single pitch is exactly what Pertl brought back to his playing as a Western musician. Deeper listening is critical to understanding other cultures’ purpose for music. These invaluable benefits of seeing and hearing the music and performers of other cultures are what make the World Music Series so important to students at LU.

The World Music Series brings in incredible musicians from all over the world. Over the years, I had the opportunity to see the music of many musical traditions, but most memorable have been those that break the binary. For me, these are Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole, De Temps Antan and Red Baraat. When I saw these performers, it was electrical. Students, guests, residents of Appleton could not resist the temptation to dance. Some walked in expecting a forced experience and forced fun, but we all left sweating and panting like any weekend dance party on campus. These artists show classical musicians that music isn’t just about being profound or about technical prowess. For those who enjoy pop and dance music, these artists show that we don’t always need subwoofers and synthesizers to party. This is what excites me about the World Music experience at Lawrence.

Sonja Downing says what is so exciting about the World Music Series is the wide variety of these groups. We see new instrumentalists playing their traditional music so organically. It is unlike professional orchestras playing time tested symphonies and other repertoire.

However, Dean Pertl says he has not lost the appreciation for these Western traditions, but has grown a new understanding through alternative experiences.

As for the growth of the program at Lawrence, there isn’t really a need for a major in ethnomusicology. Dean Pertl feels that the area is more suited for graduate school, yet more world music would always be better. He and Downing would love to bring in resident artists for longer periods of time in order to dig deeper into non-Western traditions. Downing encourages any students, regardless of major, to take courses in World Music, and there is no need to be intimidated. No musical experience is required to understand the material because the concepts will open the minds of music majors just as much as anyone else. The same goes for Balinese Gamelan and Dean Pertl’s didjeridu lessons.

Students should continue to discover as much as possible about worldwide cultures in this time of vast globalization and world markets. As for musicians, most professionals are versed in a wide variety of music. An open mind to all things new is the spirit of the liberal arts, and we should take advantage of the forward thinkers like Dean Pertl and Professor Downing that we have in our midst.