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James Lileks reacts to the cry of the ethnomusicologists.

Friday, February 9, 2007

HH: I’m a little bit leery at this point of asking James Lileks if he’s an ethnomusicologist, but I’ve got…James, are you like Podhoretz, an ethnomusicologist?

JL: Mr. Hewitt, I would like to register my complaint in the strongest possible terms of Mr. Podhoretz’ appropriation of the zither and the pan flute to craft his reply to our position. The zither is a Middle European instrument, the pan flute is known in the Andean culture. Both have their own separate cultural identities, and to put them together for the purposes of attacking our work, I believe violates everything that we (sniffling) in ethnomusicology stand for. There, I’ve said it.

HH: If he used the pan flute in part one, and the zither in part two, would that be acceptable?

JL: Well, perhaps if the zither expanded on the point made by the pan flute, that might be right. But if you use them at the same time, I think that’s just ethically wrong, and I think that’s as clear as the nose on everybody’s face. I was pleased to hear, however, (laughing) as John noted, that John Cage, for example, is one of those modern composers who sounds like a box of hardware being thrown down the stairs, essentially. John Cage wrote a piece called 4:33. Do you know what 4:33 was?

HH: No.

JL: Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It is considered by the cognoscente, those who study modern music, and I’ve got that in air quotes, that this is an actual piece of music, that the music consists of whatever sounds happen in the auditorium while nothing is done for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the shifting of buttocks, the blinking of eyes, you know, the checking of the watch, all of those little incremental sounds constitutes a sound. So in other words, if you played to the Gitmo detainees, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, at really high volume, that would be considered torture by these guys. And of course, I expect everybody else to get on the bandwagon now, too. I want the American hydraulic engineers and the lumber board to get together and say something about water boarding.

HH: (laughing) Lileks, what did you take away from that…were you listening?

JL: Yes, I was, yeah. Yes, I was. It’s very interesting that people can actually continue to live and draw breath when every single jot of moisture has been extracted from their body, and all that is left is the dry husk of intellect. What a charming and happy fellow!

HH: Yes, he was.

JL: I can only imagine him putting on the Sinatra records, and warning the women in the audience that the world chick is going to be deployed at some point, and they’re going to have to beep it out, because it might abrade their tender sensibilities.

HH: I forgot, as I did fumble the gals reference, didn’t I?

JL: Yeah, you certainly did.

HH: That was…I’m going to get a letter, I’m told.

JL: Yeah, next time you have him on, ask if any of the skirts in his organization heard your talk.

HH: Now what about, though, the reference to the 14th Century…

JL: (laughing)

HH: You know, I can’t make that up.

JL: If you have to go back 700 years to find an example in which you would have criticized that, had you been around, it’s a fair shake that you haven’t been going around the globe and finding out examples of totalitarian regimes using music in a bad way. But of course, they probably haven’t. And they probably haven’t even thought to do so, because when they want to torture somebody, they get down to it.

HH: Yeah, they get pliers.

JL: It’s the pliers of the nails, it’s the shocks on the soles of the feet. What I love is that the idea that a conquering, occupying army is so brutal that when it wants to pacify a street, it will put a car down the middle playing Rock You Like A Hurricane at high volume, instead of, of course, indiscriminately opening fire into everybody’s windows, which is what armies throughout history have been known to do. He didn’t even go back to Noriega, who if I remember, was smoked out of his hiding place after the Panama invasion by rolling up Marshall Stacks to the outside of his palace and blasting Metallica until he finally had such a…

HH: I thought it was Queen, but I’m not sure. But now I’m very, very intrigued now by this group, and if they represent something about the American academy. They really don’t believe that we’re at war, do they?

JL: No, they represent academic life at its most rarified and finest, and most honest, as a matter of fact. I mean, that’s what all the time cogitating in the ivory tower will do to you. You just absolutely lose touch with events on the ground, that you can’t even say that Castro was a bad guy, and frankly, your dander gets up when somebody brings up the point. So no, they don’t. And the poor innocents in cages, which is a very interesting term that he used…

HH: Yup.

JL: …tells you pretty much where they’re coming from.

HH: And he heard it on NPR, so it must be true.

JL: Absolutely has to be so.

HH: But now do you suspect that the 2,500 members of the Society For Ethnomusicology really did not have a dissenting vote on this?

JL: I don’t think that they do, and I thought that was the most telling part of it, because either they don’t, which I think is probably true, or those who thought that this was a silly waste of their time, and they ought to get back to comparing Andean bone flute music to the zither of Middle Europe, that those people probably held their tongue, because to say otherwise would to be one of them, don’t you know.

HH: I guess he wouldn’t have liked the last episode of Rome.

JL: I haven’t seen it, yet, but I’ve got a good idea as to what it’s about.

HH: There’s a lot of nasty stuff going on in Rome this week.

JL: Well, between that and 24, it’s sort of your all-torture television.

HH: I was going to ask him about 24, but I was pretty certain that that was an inappropriate redirection of the conversation as well.

JL: Probably so.

HH: What do you think he was invited…what do you think he thought we were going to talk about?

JL: Well, the text of the issue, of course, which is a very serious and learned document. That’s probably…I mean, I don’t think he gets out much, let’s put it that way. So if he’s under the impression that all radio is at thoughtful and steeple-fingered as NPR, he was a little bit mistaken. Thoughtful you are, but steeple-fingered, no.

HH: But I did ask him about the statement, and I thought they were obvious questions, but I’ll tell you…

JL: I don’t think he wanted to be asked questions. I think what he was sort of assuming was that you’d give him a couple of set ups, and he’d be able to roll. The idea that somebody would actually challenge the ideas, is to reveal yourself as a Neanderthal torturer yourself, or with the heart of one.

HH: Now I am not opposed to the idea that the amplification of music into the ears could actually be physically damaging, and could be torture under some circumstances. I actually could buy into that. But I don’t think we’ve done that.

JL: No, but…no, I don’t know, but that’s not the point. The point is that when these organizations eventually come up with a document to protest something, who do they protest? Who’s the focus or their ire? Who’s the bad guy? I mean, if these…what they’re doing, exactly, crafting ethical guidelines for the rest of the world as to the application of music, I’m not sure. But when they finally dip a toe into the waters of public policy, who do they go after?

HH: Yup. Us. Lileks, as always, a pleasure, although I consider you to be wrong on the pan flute and the zither.

JL: Well, we’ll see what J-Pod does, won’t we?

HH: We will., America.

End of interview.

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