Groove-ology

During his graduate work in musicology at the University of
Chicago, Charles Keil couldn’t find a single theory that explained
the immediate, vital drive of his favorite jazz. There was
something in the texture, and push, and sexiness of the music that
couldn’t be touched by theories formed to account for the abstract
architecture of a Bach fugue.

Out of Keil’s, and other jazz- and world-music-aware
musicologists’ deep dissatisfaction with the abstracting,
conceptualizing bias of Western music theory (and Western high
culture in general) is being born a family of new theories of how
music works at the micro-level. In the Winter 1995 issue of
Ethnomusicology, Keil and others debate his theory
of ‘participatory discrepancies’ (PDs), which seeks to register,
record, and theorize the thousands of small, moment-to-moment,
concrete gestures, decisions, touches, timbres, and other details
in the doing of music. These can range from the almost undefinable
‘push’ that a polka band puts behind each note to the intricacies
of ‘swinging’ in ensemble jazz.

‘Swinging’ is a vital example of what Keil and his colleagues
call the ‘groove’ — the mysteriously right ensemble feel. PD
theory suggests that the groove emerges not as the perfect
embodiment of some timeless musical essence, but as a dynamic
pattern of irregularities (notes played a little off, rhythms
retarded just a little) that ‘fits’ because all the players are
adjusting to one another’s contributions all the time, in a dynamic
dialogue.

And it’s that social, communal aspect of the groove that leads
the PD theorists beyond theory. Via the Buffalo, New York-based
organization M.U.S.E. (Musicians United for Superior Education), PD
and groove-oriented musicians and academics — including Canadian
sound theorist/therapist R. Murray Schafer and African-culture
maven Robert Farris Thompson — are calling for a new, African and
Afro-Caribbean-based musical pedagogy in which the study of ‘music’
will be replaced by what Christopher Small, writing in
M.U.S.E. Letter, calls ‘musicking, that remarkable
form of human encounter in which people come together to make
meanings, to explore and affirm, and, yes, celebrate for a while
their common humanity…’ In changing the idea music from a
(Eurocentric) body of knowledge into a communal activity in the
African spirit, the groove-ologists hope to inspirit children of
all races with not

just the courage and will to make music, but with the habit of
feeling the groove as part of larger planetary processes of beauty
and renewal. Or as Charles Keil unabashedly puts it, ‘fusing with
the ancestor, the totem, the force, the sound, and therefore with
the universe.

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