Uncertain about Universality

I had a very nice lunch of Hanoi Chicken today at a prize-winning Vietnamese restaurant in Stockholm. It's one of half a dozen Vietnamese places in the city, catering almost exclusively to an ethnically Swedish clientele (there's just over 13 000 Vietnamese people in the whole country). Now if on the other hand I would want to buy Vietnamese music it's highly unlikely I'd find any at all anywhere in Stockholm, whether popular, traditional or classical. Maybe one CD at best at the nasty world music store with the caricature of a name.

I know marketability is a bad measure of appeal, and I know food culture is equally beset with post-colonial problems as any other expression. But I still think some cultural manifestations are much more translatable, even universal than others. And that makes me wonder what gives the quality of universality, and perhaps take issue with the idea of music being a universal language.

My measure of universality is probably my mother-in-law, a tiny finnish woman who left school at 16 and spent most of her life as a cleaning lady. If I gave her a record of music outside her own cultural sphere of Elvis, Finnish tango and Ricky Martin she'd have no idea what to do with it. But she loves foreign food (she exchanges spices with a Sri Lankan friend and is open to all sorts of cuisines). And I'm sure if I gave her a craft item from a far-off culture she'd readily accept it and even display it around her home, maybe even learn the appropriate technique.

Expanding a bit to people who read books and attend classes, I'd say appropriately translated literature (especially folk-tales filled with Jungian archetypes) is fairly universal. So's dance - there's a great deal of interest in and classes of African, South Asian and South American readily available in this city, and they're also very popular. Chinese theatre goes down very well. In fact, I'm not sure the actual question is what expressions are universally appealing, but why music doesn't work the same way. The "world music" market is inappreciably small as a proportion of all music made, and most music never comes close to making it across.

(That applies to time just as much as place, by the way. It's been fascinating during my history of music course to see how the aesthetic ideals of each time period is completely overthrown by the next (cf. Ars Subtilior) and how each era has so specific criteria for what constitutes a potential hit.)

It's all very strange 'cause there's this myth (going back to Immanuel Kant, I guess) that music somehow is a language that transcends all boundaries. But for all its supposed openness to hermeneutic interpretation from every angle there's a cruel specificity to music, where something as elusive as production sound can mean the difference between success and failure. Compared to the basal human instincts of eating and dancing, and to the representational arts with their rich interconnections and possibilities for comparison, music is a language that works expressly within a cultural context. The wrong tonality, the wrong song structure, the wrong thematics, the wrong application and music is at risk of being ignored or dismissed as very dull.

I can freely confess to not understanding the qualities of Vietnamese music the way I appreciate the qualities of Vietnamese food. And that, perhaps, is part of what musicology such an interesting subject to study.

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