What a difference a sub-clause makes
In the latest issue of Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist”, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I’m quoted as saying this about live versus recorded music in ballet training (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?):
“I think a lot of it is based on tradition: the pianist is almost like the sacred cow.”
I did say that, but that’s only half of what I said. “Sacred cow” in English is a rather pejorative expression, used to imply that a thing or an idea is venerated and beyond criticism, as a result of an irrational belief or tradition. The further suggestions is that if we were to subject these unconsidered beliefs to reason, we might save ourselves unnecessary grief.
But that’s in fact the opposite of what I meant, which would have been clear had the rest of what I’d said been included.
Ballet pianists, sacred cows and anthropology
When I said that pianists were maybe like the sacred cow, I followed it up by saying that as with sacred cows, there’s maybe a very good reason why they’re sacred. As I said it, I had in mind a particularly memorable section in Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she discusses “neofunctional systems analyses,” in particular the work of anthropologist Roy Rappaport (1926-1997).
Ritual, Rappaport argued, not only regulates the interaction of one human community with another but also can regulate the interaction of humans with local materials, foodstuffs, and animals—especially pigs in the New Guinea case, since they are an important component of the diet and the economy. […] Rappaport described how the Maring-speaking peoples of New Guinea slaughtered domestic pigs only under special circumstances and within a ritual framework. For example, a ritual killing of pigs is organized if the number of pigs multiplies to the point that too much labor and food are needed to feed them. (Bell, 1997, p. 29)
Bell goes on to discuss the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:
Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)
Although I didn’t quote all that, that’s what I meant when I said pianists were like sacred cows—i.e. maybe behind the unthinking veneration of the presence of musicians in the ballet world there is a logic, a vital ecology that we won’t see until the rational economic arguments have got rid of them: by the time we’ve figured out the reason we used to venerate live music, it might already be too late.
Live versus recorded music, a dangerous framing
So what I meant was in fact the opposite of what came across: I was defending the apparently irrational valorising of live music in ballet training. It’s often the case now that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.” You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.
As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them. Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.
The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument. An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there). I could write a thesis about that. Oh wait….