From Mantinades to Night-Rhymes: Composing an Imaginary Musical Tradition

by Eric L. Ball


In this essay, I provide a rationale for my ongoing work as a "composer" by framing it in relation to contemporary Cretan traditional music, music composition in the academy, and a political issue (egalitarian social change). I begin by discussing my transformative experience with Cretan music, a tradition that includes significant participatory music-making elements and intersects with the island's extensively developed rhyming couplet (mantinada) tradition. I then consider academic composing in relation to noncomposed, improvised and/or participatory musics, and I look at both in relation to the issue of egalitarian social change. I overview my efforts to compose a kind of music that is meant to sound as if it were part of an imaginary musical tradition partly inspired by Cretan music and the mantinada. I end by articulating some questions, anxieties, and speculations that relate to these efforts.

Cretan Music

Many people are convinced that music has changed their lives in a fundamental way. I am one of those people.

Sometimes it's a particular piece of music. Sometimes it's a particular composer, performer, or band. Sometimes it's a particular album or concert. In my case it was a particular music-making tradition—contemporary Cretan traditional music (kritiki paradosiaki mousiki)—that unexpectedly altered the trajectory of my life.

I have written elsewhere about some of my transformative experiences in Crete during the 1990s with Cretan music.1 Here let me just say that as a non-Greek northern New Yorker who grew up waist-deep in various popular recorded musics (pop, rock, hip-hop, country, bluegrass, soul, folk, singer-songwriter, jazz)—and who had also begun to dive into the study of classical music appreciation, history, and philosophy as an undergraduate—my relationship to music was significantly changed after finding myself eagerly welcomed in Crete to participate wholeheartedly in one dynamic, ordinary everyday life music-making event after another, sometimes to the point of ecstasy.

Eric L. Ball playing lyra/fingernail fiddle

Sure, I had done my homework—I'd learned the dances; I'd taught myself the Greek language and some Cretan dialect; I'd been studying up on and learning how to craft the rhyming couplets (mantinades) that comprise the texts for almost all of the music; I'd also begun to play some Cretan tunes on mandolin and Cretan lyra. Still—I doubt I would have invested so much effort learning many of these things if I hadn't already sensed that I would be so welcomed and that by joining in I would experience such high-intensity enjoyment.

In short—and drawing on some useful terminology from ethnomusicology without meaning to conflate the singularity of Cretan music with that of various other traditions—I experienced some of the incredible joys that can be had in a culture of participatory music-making. Thomas Turino, an American ethnomusicologist, describes participatory performance as "a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants and potential participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role" (26). Turino distinguishes the participatory field from three other fields: the presentational (performed live to an audience), hi fidelity (recorded live or to sound almost as though it could have been), and studio audio art (recorded but without any suggestion that it was, should, or even could be performed live). Unlike in some parts of the world, these three nonparticipatory music practices prevail in the United States, so much so that they largely inform most Americans' deeper assumptions about what music is (23).

To be sure, participatory Cretan music is contiguous to Cretan music in Turino's other three fields. So it would be misleading to reduce the transformative nature of my experiences with Cretan music to merely the participatory—I also gobbled up Cretan CDs, watched Cretan music television shows, and attended Cretan music performances and concerts, with or without the option of participating in them. I was also very taken with the widespread and surprisingly frequent presence in everyday life of Cretan music—live and recorded—in amateur, professional, and mixed amateur/professional forms.2

In addition, as someone with poetic as well as musical inclinations and aspirations, I was also surely affected by the fact that the mantinades that are central to Cretan music are also such an important part of Cretan life in general, irrespective of music.3 The mantinada shows up almost everywhere in Cretan life. Grandparents utter a mantinada as an adage when making a point to grandchildren. Cretan newspapers hold mantinada contests, publishing entries and awarding prizes to winners in various categories. Radio shows have segments where listeners call in to recite one or more of their latest rhymes—maybe as a comment on current events, sometimes as a continuation of a starter first line announced by the host, or even just as a chance to express themselves publicly. Prolific crafters of mantinades put out books of their rhymes, sold in stores on the island and beyond. Associations of Cretan versifiers hold conferences on the mantinada. There are people who create and manage ever growing online repositories of mantinades submitted by whoever so desires. There are advertising jingles in the form of mantinades, for grocery stores to car dealerships. In some of my earlier scholarly work (Ball 2002), I went so far as to suggest that the mantinada phenomenon can be usefully regarded as a regional analogue of literature proper. In short, I was very taken with how Cretan music and the Cretan mantinada intersect and how these intersections shape, and are shaped by, a wide range of participatory contexts.

I was also taken with Cretan music's structures: Much or most of it is not really a matter of songs. On the one hand, since almost all Cretan music's lyrics are built from the same self-contained unit of the mantinada, any "lyrics" can in principle be sung in any order to almost any Cretan music, and, conversely, almost any Cretan music can be put to almost any mantinada. (In practice, of course, it is a matter of creative or artistic judgment.) On the other hand, musically speaking, a "song" is really more a stringing together of repeated tunes or tune pairings.4 The performance of a "song's" music could consist of anything from a single tune repeated for a short time to thirty minutes of repeated tunes or tune pairings, in whatever order the participants decide, and with each repetition open to some variation. All tunes and tune-pairings are of course amenable to the singing of mantinades. Therefore, with tunes, tune pairings, and mantinades conforming to frameworks that make almost everything interchangeable, the word song for much Cretan traditional music is a bit of a misnomer, except perhaps when a particular recording (e.g., one especially well known and well loved) is reproduced more or less verbatim in live performances.

On the whole, then, I was impressed by how Cretan music and Cretan rhyming strike a remarkable—miraculous? optimal?—balance between interlockability, on the one hand, and freedom for open-ended creativity at different skill levels, on the other.5 Music and rhyming work separately and together as musical and literary analogs of the toy with which I spent more of my childhood hours than any other: Lego. This Lego-ness enables Cretan music and Cretan rhyming to support and encourage widespread participation in music making and/or versifying, just as the high value6 placed by Cretan culture on widespread participation helps to ensure that such interlocking forms continue to survive and thrive in modern times.

In live performances, anyone vaguely familiar with the tunes or who can pick them up upon hearing them repeated can sing or play along with as many or as few melody notes as they want or are capable of. The widespread use of drone or power chord (root + fifth) accompaniments and the relative absence (especially until quite recently) of major, minor, and diminished harmonies leaves plenty of room for participants to be creative with melodies—freeing up substantially which scales or notes of a scale can be used and where precisely the notes can fall (in terms of intonation) without doing violence to listeners' ears. A novice can play the basic notes of a melody; a virtuoso can offer endless flourishes and variations.7

There is little need for knowing the words to a song: mantinada singers can jump into the music that any instrumentalists play and add their own words, pulled from the air or invented in the moment. Instrumentalists can negotiate the direction of the music—such as which tunes get played, in which order, how many repetitions, for how long—even as they are playing it. Mantinada singers can inspire the instrumentalists to take the music in certain directions by virtue of the meanings they express; instrumentalists can use the music's feeling to inspire mantinada singers to take their meanings in certain directions. Mantinada singers can inspire each other on the spot to head in different directions, as can instrumentalists.

The collective improvisation of amateurs and professionals, specialists and generalists alike—and all together—is celebrated. There is as much room for the less-virtuoso instrumentalist who is a master at singing the right rhyme at the right time as there is for the instrumentalist who can dazzlingly and spontaneously play the same melody twenty times in a row but never the same way twice—but who wouldn't know how the music might be well paired with particular rhymes if their life depended on it. Everyone present who has even the slightest inclination to participate in the music-making will, it is hoped, readily find some competent way to do so—singing, dancing, playing instruments, clapping hands, snapping fingers, interjecting commentary, creatively egging on mantinada singers, whistling, pouring wine or serving someone a piece of food, making toasts—anything that contributes to the overall unfolding of the music as a reflection of whatever collective spirit comes into being through the ongoing cooperation, and sometimes competition, of individual expressions.

Even in less spontaneous contexts, a music maker need not choose between composing something new and doing a "cover" or an "interpretation" of an extant piece—one can also readily come up with something new by recycling old tunes or rhymes in new contexts or in other innovative ways.

To summarize, much Cretan music involves enjoying and nurturing widespread participation in a culture where almost everyone possesses some literary-musical Lego, where Lego-like rhymes and Lego-like tunes are always lying around ready for the taking, ready for sharing, ready for people to use—cooperatively or competitively—in building whatever comes to mind, heart, or imagination. Cretan music is extensively developed across three of Turino's frames (studio audio art—not so much) and the mantinada is extensively developed across musical and nonmusical contexts. All this contributed to making my experience of Cretan music and rhyming transformative, thereby sowing seeds that would have me coming back to them again in relation to my own compositional efforts.

Music and Egalitarian Social Change

Since 2003, living in upstate New York, I almost never seek opportunities to participate in Cretan music, nor in any other participatory musical tradition for that matter. Instead, I have turned much of my musical attention to composing music, including its texts. Yet—having been forever transformed by my Cretan experiences—the music and texts that I have been composing remain rooted in and inspired by Cretan music and rhyming in several ways.

I have many reasons for doing so and not all of them are personal. As an academic/artist, I also believe there is value in dwelling in and dwelling on certain aspects of Cretan music in my compositional work because doing so can enable inquiry—by me or by anyone else who happens to attend to my music—into issues that have broader relevance.

Consider, for example, the political issue of utopian8 egalitarian social change.

Historical musicologist Richard Taruskin has written of Terry Riley's 1964 experimental composition, In C, whose score gives most of the performers an unusual amount of freedom (for classical music) regarding what each plays and for how long:

In C represented a model of cooperative behavior of a kind that was at the heart of the sixties counterculture, with its hippie communes and ashrams, and the explicit parallel between the symphony orchestra, emblem that it was of the musical establishment, and the worst aspects of military life was a pointed reminder of what the counterculture was countering at the time of America's most unpopular military engagement. Also evident at a glance, and equally crucial to its immediate appeal, was In C's relative ease of performance. It does not require highly trained professional musicians, although nothing precludes their participation. It lends itself equally well to all kinds of nonstandard ensembles, and it encourages mixtures of players from different walks of musical life. [...]

The piece could be seen, from all of these perspectives, as proposing a more democratic, less hierarchical organization of society that might have appeared utopian in "real life," but that could be actualized directly in music. It offered a working experience of countercultural paradise [...] (365–366).

Yet, inasmuch as Riley's piece is still composed—centered around Riley's score that performers are meant to follow even as they are provided significant choices to make in so doing—it upholds the hierarchy of composer over performers. As a model of cooperative behavior, it may not be so egalitarian after all.

Now consider sociocultural theorist Eugene Holland on collective improvisation in jazz. Holland argues that jazz improvisation offers an attractive model for social relations in a more egalitarian market society liberated from top-down control by capital and organized instead, as it were, from below. He makes the case not only in terms of jazz's formal innovation—which involves intensely creative (as opposed to more mechanical) repetition of tunes and chord changes—but also in terms of its social innovation:

Just as the formal order of a jazz improvisation arises immanently from the free activity of playing rather than being programmed in advance by a written score, so too does the social organization of jazz improvisation arise immanently from the group activity, rather than being imposed from the top down by a composer or band leader (Holland 2008, 202).

This particular aspect of jazz becomes especially apparent through comparison with the classical tradition. Holland continues:

[I]n the jazz assemblage, participation and creativity are widely dispersed and shared, whereas in the classical assemblage they are very narrowly restricted to the composer, with just a small margin of creative leeway granted to the conductor, even less to the musicians themselves, and nothing at all to the audience except for rapt and silent appreciation (Ibid., 204).

Yet, following Jacques Attali's (1985) overall argument in Noise, Holland also observes that the epitome of egalitarian jazz improvisation (the free jazz movement of the late 1950s and 1960s)—even if it turns out to be prophetic of future egalitarian social developments—actually "proved incapable of fundamentally altering the ways jazz was recorded, distributed, and consumed by the music industry, much less altering the broader social relations surrounding the industry and the place of music within society at large" (Holland 2014, 30). This, he adds, is not surprising, "given the immensity of the task and the paucity of means jazz musicians had at their disposal to address it; that it was even conceived of may be considered remarkable enough all by itself" (Ibid.).

Furthermore, from the perspective of participatory music, group improvisation in jazz can uphold the hierarchy of performers over listening audience.9 Turino argues that some live improvisational jazz can be regarded as participatory, but that much of it can not:

In their live performances, one jazz ensemble might largely pertain to the participatory field by emphasizing its role as a dance band (e.g., Duke Ellington during the swing era, Big Voodoo Daddy), while other jazz artists might primarily be geared toward formal concerts and club presentations (e.g., Coltrane, Monk) (27).

From the perspective of jazz improvisation (participatory and nonparticipatory alike), Riley's composition remains an imperfect model of egalitarian social relations insofar as it retains the score and a composer/performer hierarchy. Yet, from the perspective of participatory music making, nonparticipatory jazz improvisation remains an imperfect model of egalitarian social relations insofar as it retains a hierarchical distinction between improvisers (composer-performers) and audiences.

Yet, an important caveat is in order once again: The fact that a musical practice is participatory does not in itself make it unqualifiedly egalitarian, or even necessarily more egalitarian than any and all nonparticipatory musics. Indeed, just as critical analysts of the classical tradition have argued convincingly that its practices have had at least as much to do with maintaining hierarchies (of race, class, gender, geography, etc.) as with any historic evolution of composerly and virtuosic genius,10 so too do researchers in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology routinely consider ways that even participatory music-making functions as a site for the reproduction and negotiation of various nonegalitarian power relations (e.g., of patriarchy).11

My point here is not that there is one music-making practice that is the best model for cooperative social relations nor even that music-making practices can be lined up in some kind of politically correct order from most to least alienated. And I certainly do not mean to suggest that having ascertained which music practice best models egalitarian social relations (which I just said is impossible anyway), that that's the model which should be practiced to whatever extent possible and by whatever means necessary in the name of ushering in an era of egalitarianism. After all, it remains unknown—and seems to me will always remain unknown, except perhaps in certain limited instances and only then in hindsight—the extent to which a range of music-making practices might contribute to fostering liberating social change in general versus the extent to which fundamental changes in the broader social, political, and economic order might first or simultaneously be required in order to liberate music-making practices.

What I am trying to suggest, then, is that particular music-making practices can usefully serve as occasions for considering various nuances regarding how music and broader social relations might be connected, harmonious, and/or opposed to each other from the point of view of a particular political issue (e.g., egalitarianism). Jazz improvisation, participatory music traditions from around the world, the classical tradition, and surely many other musics too may all prove ambivalent—both liberating in some ways while remaining alienating in others—but nonetheless fertile opportunities for imagining what music making and social relations might look like in a more egalitarian future.

Indeed, Holland argues something like this in a separate discussion of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra:

The opposition of jazz bands to classical orchestras enabled us to contrast two forms of organization of the social field, one featuring top-down, transcendent command and the other bottom-up, immanent self-organization. But such an opposition is by no means absolute; it has mainly heuristic value. There is a noteworthy exception that belies a simplistic opposition between jazz and classical music: it is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra [...] Ever since its founding in 1972, Orpheus has prided itself on being "the only major orchestra in the world to consistently rehearse, perform, and record without a conductor" (2011, 65).

Holland then goes on to use the Orpheus example to provide the kind of complexifying nuance that I am suggesting is important. His particular concern—always in relation to the issue of a more egalitarian future—is how seemingly participatory approaches to the management of an enterprise can be undermined when the ultimate driver of such management remains top-down, owing to the particular arrangements of enterprise ownership. In Orpheus's case, the fact that managerial functions are flattened out and shared is but the first nuance that matters:

How can a world-class orchestra perform without a conductor? Although Orpheus still reproduces precomposed music from a score, nearly all its other procedures are quite unlike those of a standard classical orchestra. For one thing, the function of conducting has been deducted from the figure of the conductor, which has disappeared: instead of being assigned exclusively and permanently to one person—the conductor—the conducting function circulates among various members of the orchestra (65).

Secondly, he argues, what matters is that how the sharing and rotating of these managerial functions occurs is decided upon by the members of the orchestra, collectively, and thus hopefully motivated, at least in part,12 by whatever they themselves take as the core values or goals of the enterprise (e.g., performing each piece as well as possible):

Whoever is collectively considered to have the best knowledge of and/or feel for a certain piece of music is chosen to conduct it; when the piece of music changes, so does the conductor. The role of section leader also circulates among the members of those orchestra sections large enough to have a leader (violins, winds, etc.) (65).

Finally, Holland explains, this approach to the music is related to the orchestra's approach to the enterprise in general:

More important for our purposes here, the principles of immanent self-organization have in the last few years been extended from the artistic to the business side of the orchestra: the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra now operates with neither a CEO, an executive director, nor a conductor. And similar principles apply to the function of artistic director, repertory manager, and so on: the twenty-seven members of the orchestra decide as a group who will temporarily fulfill various business functions for specific musical choices or periods of time (65–66).

It seems to me that it has never been easier to spot all around us openings for liberating music-making as well as to note and interrogate the many large and powerful obstacles standing in its way. Rather than obsess over identifying one right or best way forward, it would seem sensible for different individuals and groups to experiment with whatever each deems most attractive, enjoyable, and promising from the point of view of the particular contexts they find themselves in and the means they have at their disposal for doing so.

Composing in the Academy

Specialist Composing

When it comes to my own musical experimentation, one important context in which I find myself is that of the academy. And, as an academic, one of the most attractive means I have had at my disposal is composing13—since, as I indicated above, participatory music-making has not lately been a viable option for me. From the point of view of egalitarian aspirations, the academy is an ambivalent space, and this is no less true for academic composing.

Many modern composers in the Western, literate music tradition conventionally labeled "classical" or "art music" have found themselves not only privileged—for example, publicly funded by nation-states, patronized by the rich—but also marginalized—for example, by repressive political ideologies (think: Stalin and Shostakovich, the Nazis and so-called Degenerate Music) or by crass commercialism wherein capital accumulation serves as a major determinant of how quality in music tends to be judged. Consequently, many composers have looked to the academy as an important institutional space where—owing to relative academic freedom—they might have their compositions assessed primarily by their professional peers based on whatever evaluative criteria have been developed and negotiated by the network of peers themselves, rather than imposed from outside and above. Such peer evaluation—especially the more dialogically it seeks to operate and the harder it tries not to gate-keep using evaluative criteria that are complicit in anti-egalitarian prejudices—makes academic freedom valuable not only to academics, but also to the broader public good in terms of the politics of knowledge.14

The advantages of academic freedom for the common good notwithstanding, the modern academy is hardly a utopian space either. Academic freedom is invariably constrained on every side (e.g., through capitalist funding, top-down control exercised by boards of trustees) by pressure and demands that colleges and universities operate in ways that primarily serve oligarchic interests that tend to be Eurocentric, capitalist, and patriarchal to say the least. Therefore, the academy is populated by professionals whose methods, priorities, and evaluative criteria are inescapably not—as many academics once believed and still do in some cases—disinterested, value-free, and a-political, nor even primarily driven by egalitarian-oriented politics.15

Thus, the space and support for music composition provided by the academy is a mixed blessing. A composer such as Milton Babbitt, author of the 1958 article "Who Cares If You Listen?" (purportedly originally titled, "The Composer as Specialist" by Babbitt himself), was able to argue successfully for the creation of the first North American Ph.D.—a research degree—in music composition (at Princeton). But his argument was able to fly with the powers that be because it adopted a teleological and scientistic view of music that resonated with the broader scientistic ideologies of the day and the arguably oligarchic interests to which they were attached.16 Thus, on the one hand, it is wonderful that individuals such as Babbitt and his peers were afforded valuable wiggle room (academic "freedom") to pursue music in the ways they did and to get paid for it, subjected primarily to evaluation by one another instead of to the vicissitudes of capital accumulation (e.g., conditioning the tastes of paying audiences) or to the flexing of government muscle. On the other hand, it is disappointing to think that they were collecting paychecks for music composition because they managed to attach it to, and thereby to reinforce, certain ideologies (scientism, teleological historicism, etc.) that were arguably the correlates or corequisites of unjust forces of oppression and repression commonly decried as elitist by those who believe they are their victims.

Nowadays, on the heels of much avant-garde experimentation in classical music in the latter half of the twentieth century, and in the wake of (or, depending on your view, in the middle of) postmodern sensibilities and a concomitant flowering of ethnomusicology, wiggle room for academic music composition looks rather different than it did in Babbitt's day:

[B]y the 1980s composers had begun to discover they could compose without ideological constraints and with a new sense of permission. By the twenty-first century that degree of permissibility, in which everything—and in every combination—was possible, had become the new norm (Rutherford-Johnson 53).

Academic freedom for music composition also looks different today because of certain (albeit slow) egalitarian-minded developments in the world of classical composition in general:

[T]o be accepted into [the sphere of Western art music], musicians must meet certain conditions. Regrettably, Western art music's close associations in the past with colonial power and aristocratic patronage have meant that those conditions have included tightly policed definitions of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Those legacies are still, slowly, being cleared out today (Rutherford-Johnson 21).

Several academically trained composers have discussed at some length with me their experiences—as graduate students in music composition and/or as faculty. One described the widespread practice in at least some institutions of a student-centered, "Socratic" approach as the default mode of guidance and evaluation: faculty mentors offering feedback, criticism, or suggestions to students about their compositional work in light of the students' own compositional goals.17 Another explained that the evaluation criteria for the compositional part of her dissertation derived immanently from the particular "areas of interest" (e.g., post-1970s Chinese and Sino-American music composition, Western opera form and structure, ethnomusicology) that she chose to combine ("eclectically") in the service of her overarching goals as a composer. She also emphasized her sense that fellow graduate students—most of whom also came from other national backgrounds—were likewise free to do so, and she noted that peer-to-peer evaluation among students was also encouraged and valued.18 Another suggested to me that academic views on "what music is" and how musical works might best be assessed have opened up so much in recent years that it poses significant challenges for music faculty and departments when they reconsider their composition curricula trying to figure out what (if anything) can be sensibly prioritized as core learning for all students.19 One composer—originally trained in jazz and now crossing classical and jazz traditions in innovative ways—spoke with me about the additional challenges involved in forging a compositional space in academia that lies rather outside of those spaces already established, and how composers on faculty might caution graduate students to some extent ("for their own good"). At the same time, he expressed his sense that support for such experimentation remains readily available.20 So, I was left with the impression that plenty of seasoned academic composers remain committed to empowering newer composers to understand but also to negotiate institutional boundaries, constraints, and assumptions as they seek to pursue their own particular compositional interests

None of this is to say that academic music composition is simply on the path of liberation and that an alienating teleological scientism has been, or should be, happily displaced by a teleological social progressivism. Indeed, the aforementioned examples of "flexibility" might also be read as partly a matter of a new historical phase of capitalist alienation.21 Even so, academic freedom and peer review remain valuable from the point of view of egalitarian aspirations. If the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra represents one contemporary move toward ground-up, collective self-organization in music, then composition in music departments—owing to academic freedom and peer evaluation—represents yet another, albeit ambivalent, kind.

Radically Generalist Composing

My own nontraditional academic institution, Empire State College (ESC) of the State University of New York, has offered people like me—without specialist academic credentials in a music field or discipline per se—another altogether different kind of ground-up academic space for composing music, by virtue of its wildly generalist and learner-centered approach to academic knowledge overall.

Since its founding in 1971, ESC has eschewed (at least until this year) organization by academic disciplines, departments, and divisions. Every faculty committee that ever reviewed me for reappointments, tenure, promotions, or sabbatical was made up of faculty from across many different areas of study—from business to biology, from human services to history—with arts and humanities faculty comprising a minority of peers evaluating my work. Put differently, for my work to be considered academically legitimate, I have had to provide a rationale for it in terms that could be deemed comprehensible and acceptable, and with arguments that could be judged plausible, by ESC academics in virtually any field. (Undergraduates have been subject to an analogous process, too, wherein each student is required to plan in collaboration with faculty their own individual degree requirements and submit them for review and approval by a committee selected from the entire spectrum of faculty, irrespective of the student's area of study.)

In actual practice, this setup could have been deployed in such a way that all nonspecialists simply deferred to the evaluations and recommendations of inside and/or outside experts in the faculty member's particular field(s). And, as indicated in ESC's Faculty Handbook, it is indeed the case that evaluations from peers closer to a given faculty member's academic area(s) are considered important—though even here, note my italicizations in the wording as well as the explicit emphasis on experiential learning:

Demonstration of scholarly ability [as demonstrated by such things as success in developing and carrying out significant research in the subject matter field, contributions to the arts, publications and reputation among colleagues] requires some kind of acknowledgment by peer or other communities. Just as independent student learning, experiential or otherwise, must become accessible or demonstrated in order to be academically recognized, so the scholarly ability of faculty must become accessible to others (26, my emphasis).

Simply deferring to "the experts," however, has not as a rule been the case at ESC, in part because faculty at the institution have consciously sought to pursue a learner-centered model that remains open to the articulation of arguments and evidence to legitimate a project as academically sound even when such arguments and evidence would not necessarily fly in more conventional departmental contexts. From the same section of the Faculty Handbook:

Part of the college's mission is to recognize learning in whatever forms it occurs and to explore new forms of learning and teaching. This requires that the college describe scholarly ability in an open-ended way and that the faculty be recognized as independent learners. Accordingly, the college asks that faculty who are candidates for reappointment, continuing appointment, or promotion provide, in their portfolios, their own descriptions of their scholarly ability and of how they have demonstrated it (26, my emphasis).

Widespread participation in an open-ended range of scholarly and artistic endeavors is supported by a commitment not to be overly constrained by the conventions and norms of academic fields and disciplines whose standards arguably serve, to varying degrees, antiegalitarian purposes, thereby alienating the pursuit of higher learning. (One might even say that ESC has striven in this respect to be the academic analogue of participatory music! In fact, when I was up for tenure, I framed my teaching, scholarship, and service—none of which at the time had anything to do with music—in terms of Holland's work on collective improvisation in jazz.) Thus, while I have been expected at ESC to frame my work in music composition in relation to one or more academic fields in order for it to have a shot at being deemed academically acceptable by my local peers—something I have even been trying to do in this very essay—I am also afforded the opportunity to do so without necessarily having to demonstrate that my work has been peer reviewed and approved by academic experts in Music Composition per se.

As with specialist academic composers, my music is shaped significantly by my academic learning about music, but this learning is from a specialist perspective rather eclectic, interdisciplinary, and generalist. Much like specialist academic composers, I aim for peer recognition that I have demonstrated appropriate learning through my compositional efforts, but I do not necessarily seek peers from departments specializing in music composition, but rather from a mix of egalitarian-oriented generalists, on the one hand, and specialists in a range of relevant academic fields (e.g., Modern Greek studies, Ethnomusicology, folklore studies, comparative studies) who are also open to considering experimentally generalist academic work, on the other. This is not to say that I am uninterested in what specialized composition colleagues might think of my efforts, as Music Composition too surely counts as one of the relevant academic fields, and one for which I have—as an outsider—plenty of respect and admiration.

Utopian intentions do not necessarily translate into utopian effects, so I do not mean to suggest that this setup at ESC is necessarily any less ambivalent (vis-à-vis egalitarian aspirations) than more conventional setups in institutions organized by academic discipline. (Indeed, this very issue is a matter of ongoing discussion and debate among many ESC faculty.) But it has offered academics such as myself space that we might not have found in more specialized or departmental settings for pursuing certain scholarly and creative projects. For example, I capitalized on ESC's approach by significantly reducing my writing of articles for academic journals—something I had been well trained to do—and instead writing a book of autobiographical creative nonfiction—something for which I had no academic training—which ended up being published by the trade-books wing of a university press.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, conventional academic music disciplines and departments, and unconventional academic experiments such as ESC all provide significant if nonetheless ambivalent space for ground-up self-organization in music-making. From the perspective of egalitarianism, the academy has long been an ambivalent space for music composition, and one that—owing to academic freedom and peer evaluation—should not be summarily dismissed simply because it is not purely de-alienating.

Composing an Imaginary Musical Tradition

I have been interested as an academic in exploring and experimenting with the particular opportunities and limitations of my own institutional context. I have been doing so through music composition as an outsider to specialized music departments but as an insider to radically22 generalist experimentation regarding definitions of scholarly/creative work—experimentation that has been motivated by certain egalitarian (read: anti–ivory tower) concerns. I have also been interested in exploring potential connections between egalitarian social change and music-making practices that have significant participatory elements and a much greater emphasis on collective improvisation than does most composed music.

The way that I have been addressing these two interests simultaneously, and in relation to each other, is by composing music and texts that are meant to seem as if they were examples of the "noncomposed" music of an imaginary "folk" music tradition characterized by significant participatory elements. And, this fantastic music tradition that I am imagining and dramatizing is, in several respects, partly rooted in or inspired by my experiences with and subsequent study of Cretan music.

Note that I have articulated approximately the same thought in a more fictional register elsewhere by framing my music as the music of a region of northern New York known as New Hollandia, which exists only in a parallel universe—a made-up region where, compared with this universe, there has been a different approach taken to copyright law vis-à-vis music and versifying, and also where there has been a much more pronounced influence by (parallel-universe) Cretan immigrants on musical and versifying culture.23

My compositional activity has thus far involved three main tasks:

First, there is my writing of what I have dubbed night-rhymes—rhyming (or assonant) couplets in a form and spirit somewhat akin to the Cretan mantinada. Even my neologism night-rhyme derives from the etymology of the Greek word μαντινάδα (mantinada), from the Venetian word for a kind of morning song. (I interpret morning here to signify the late-night, wee hours of the morning.)

Second, there is my crafting of what might be called night-rhyme music, because its lyrics are always in the form of night-rhymes. On the one hand, I have modeled the structure of some of this music on those of Cretan traditional music (syrta, kontylies, etc.). On the other hand, the actual snippets of tunes or melodies that I use—either "as is" or modified by me in various ways for various purposes—derive almost entirely from non-Greek, public domain music that might be more familiar or compelling in a certain northeastern North American context, including: Anglo-American and Celtic American fiddle tunes, nineteenth-century Stephen Foster songs, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestant hymns and African American spirituals (so-called Negro spirituals), cowboy songs, children's songs, and even "classical," ancient, and medieval music.

Third, in order to try bringing the music, rhymes, and New Hollandia alive, given the resources I have readily available to me, I have been recording myself performing examples of my music and rhymes, including full-blown song cycles and mock field recordings (New Hollandia being "the field"). I have been sharing these online as what I have been calling working sketches. On the one hand, they are rough and DIY.24 On the other hand, insofar as the music and rhymes are meant to sound as if they are part of a significantly participatory tradition that emphasizes a fair amount of collective improvisation, they almost have to be working sketches, because the tunes and rhymes could have been—and perhaps more usefully will be—brought together in infinitely many other combinations. This recording work involves my singing (often using multiple voices and personas) and performing on various instruments, some of which I have built myself—especially the lyras (both three- and four-string varieties) that I dub fingernail fiddles, which I model on Cretan lyras but with my own modifications and innovations in response to local resources and my own priorities.25

If someone were to ask me about my compositions on a Monday, I might say that the intersection of Greece and the United States—of Crete and northern New York—in my night-rhyme music is little more than incidental.

Biographically, I am a non-Greek northern New Yorker descended primarily from English, Scotch-Irish, and French Canadians who immigrated to the American Northeast in the 1600s. I did live in Crete for some years for personal reasons26 that ceased to exist decades ago, and I engaged subsequently as an academic in Modern Greek studies with certain aspects of Cretan culture, especially the mantinada, for a number of years. But since then I have only returned to Crete once for a short visit.

In terms of the night-rhyming: Notwithstanding my engagement with the Cretan mantinada while I was living in Crete (some of my own mantinades were eventually published there) and for a time thereafter as a scholar, English-language ballad or common meter and even rhyming couplets in common meter (e.g., so-called fourteeners) have a long tradition in Anglo-American culture. Indeed, in a recent cycle of night-rhyme music, I employed nearly a hundred night-rhymes that I excerpted with and without modification from English and American poetry, hymns, and songs from earlier centuries.

Finally, in terms of the music: there is no essential reason why violins, say, could not be employed instead of my Cretan-inspired fingernail fiddles. The other instruments I have been using are all common enough in the United States—my mother's old acoustic guitar, a tenor banjo in Irish tuning, my grandfather's old mandolin, my own homemade knotweed recorders, my grandmother's old upright piano. And, as I already mentioned, the melodies I employ are not drawn from Cretan music. Furthermore, it is my suspicion, or at least my fantasy, that if there were to emerge within so-called new musicology a schizo-musicology—something of a cross between Susan McClary's "Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music" (1994), say, and Eugene Holland's Baudelaire and Schizoanalysis: The Socio-Poetics of Modernism (1993)—it might reasonably inform a rationale for my disassembling, modifying, and reassembling these melodies in the ways that I have been doing altogether irrespective of Cretan music. That is, a schizo-musicology might help to justify my experimentation with this particular approach to crafting the music strictly from the point of view of how harmonic progression, harmonic rhythm, and certain other structural elements of music "work" in relation to the psychodynamics of musical desiring viewed through the lens of social, political, and economic developments and utopianist egalitarian aspirations.

Then again, if someone were to ask me about my compositions on a Tuesday, I might say that their connection to Cretan music is not incidental at all, but intricately essential. The sheer number of key elements (e.g., song structures, rhythms, the way I stretch out singing of the rhymes, certain mantinada sensibilities in the night-rhymes) that I have drawn on add up like so many pieces of circumstantial evidence to prove that my music and rhymes would have been virtually impossible to have been imagined—let alone to have presented themselves to me as potentially worth pursuing and exploring—were it not for the existence of Cretan music and the extent and intensity of my experiences with it.

At any rate, as I have continued composing, New Hollandia—with its many music-makers and night-rhymers—has continued to take on a life of its own (an imaginary one, of course) almost irrespective of its partially Cretan roots. This has enabled me to begin framing my work in other ways, too. For example, and more from the vantage point of the discourse on classical music, I might also frame it as follows: Whereas many composers of Western art music have taken exploration of harmonic progression—or, more recently, of rhythmic patterning, of electronic organization of sound, or of texture and timbre—as central to their work, I have been focusing instead on the exploration of certain patterns and dynamics of musical socializing in ordinary and sometimes extraordinary everyday life. Note that this is a more generalized way of framing what I have been doing, and it offers the advantage of conceiving of my compositional work as part of inquiry into, and critique of, the possibilities and limitations of participatory music-making in general.

The Composer as Generalist: Some Outgoing Thoughts

I don't get around much anymore.

My body has been spending almost all of its time in upstate New York and my imagination has been spending much of its time in New Hollandia. (Not that I ever got around much before—during the years I was living in Crete I think I only stepped foot off the island once, and that was to visit another Greek island.)


My spirit travels far and wide—it never could sit still,

My mind and heart are wanderers who take me where they will.

Small wonder, then, that I have led an academic life forever torn between discipline and discipline's others—unbridled intuition, scatterbrained curiosity, epistemological transgression, shape-shifting identity, incommensurable loyalties, and interdisciplinarity. It has also been my blessing and my curse to gravitate toward scholarly activities that are not consistently directed primarily at academic specialists in a particular field.

This was true when I studied in an interdisciplinary context at The Ohio State University with faculty in my home base of Modern Greek studies as well as in comparative studies, folklore studies, and English. And it has remained true ever since I took a faculty position in a non-traditional institution that long resisted organization by academic disciplines, departments, and divisions.

It is the latter context that has afforded me opportunities to pursue music composition. Yet, because I am very interested in the history and possible futures of the academy—and of so-called learned communities and networks in general—the question of what is at stake in my doing so is something I think about often. It even causes me some anxiety as I find myself wondering:

As someone working in a nontraditional college, am I merely selfishly reaping the temporary benefits—such as the significant absence of groupthink discipline—afforded by a marginal, soon-to-be extinct academic backwater? To be sure, backwater habitats in nature can be potentially important sites for ecosystem renewal, but isn't it wishful thinking to think that anything I am doing at ESC might contribute to such renewal in academia more broadly? And even from a selfish perspective: what if the benefits afforded to me by such elasticity are ultimately outweighed by the liabilities, such as my relative isolation from the daily vigor and rigor of conventional academic disciplines?

Then again, might it be that I am in a privileged position (pun intended) in that from within such a nontraditional setup, I can more readily glance certain openings and opportunities for experimentation that may prove crucial for the widespread survival in or out of academia of certain kinds of creative activities in the arts, humanities, and social sciences? Am I perhaps better prepared to participate in the expansion of certain creative activities not only made possible by developments in technology (e.g., large-scale peer-to-peer networking, wiki-organized knowledge production) but also made "necessary" by various crises plaguing even mainstream academia (e.g., overproduction of research degrees in the arts and humanities relative to available research jobs; the decline in support for public education aimed at the common good in favor of more rapidly obsolete job training driven by oligarchic corporate agendas; increasingly costly degrees and certificates being ever more widely imposed as preconditions for middle-class employment)?

I must acknowledge the possibility that the academic space I currently have for radically generalist composing is not only almost invisible among academics but may soon dwindle or disappear altogether. Meanwhile, it seems likely that wiggle room for music composition within music disciplines will become harder to maintain as neoliberal capitalism discovers new reasons and ways to threaten public sponsorship of the arts that don't directly serve the interests of its oligarchs. But even so, more people in and out of the academy might continue taking advantage of technologies to create alternative venues not only for sharing music but also for sharing the music criticism that can make the existence of such music visible in the first place. The former is already widespread—from YouTube to Bandcamp. The latter exists, too—from user reviews on All Music Guide to customer reviews of recordings sold on Amazon. Perhaps, though, a wiki-criticism will also emerge—a large-scale, significantly influential, participatory critical-custodial practice on the order of a Wikipedia.27

Is it naive to remain hopeful that the work I am doing is not merely one more example of the myriad experiments in academic music composition going on these days, but one whose radical generalism also helps in some small way to make visible certain viable paths forward for music composition in general?

Is it too much to hope that my music could eventually help to inspire among a certain public of versifiers and musicians new musical developments along participatory lines that would work well in a North American context?

Who knows? I may just be going to academic-composer hell in a bucket... but at least I'm enjoying the ride!


Thanks to ESC colleague Alan Mandell (College Professor of Adult Learning and Mentoring) and two anonymous reviewers for their critically important feedback on earlier versions of this essay. I also thank Alan for more than a decade of thoughtful discussion with me about the nuances of Empire State College's organization and structures Special thanks go to the composers who generously discussed with me during their residencies at the 2017 Lake George Music Festival: David Biedenbender, Paul Dooley, Pascal Le Boeuf, and Steven Snowden. Also to Ting-Ju Lai for such discussion as well as feedback on the essay as a whole. Finally, I am grateful to ESC colleague Frank Vander Valk for having chatted with me over many years about several issues and activities that are central to this essay, for playing his guitar with me in the garage, and for occasionally prodding me gently to consider writing something along these lines in the first place.

Eric L. Ball is Professor in the Humanities and Arts Division of Empire State College, State University of New York. He is the author of Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right (2013, Excelsior Editions). Working sketches of his music and rhyming can be heard at:

Works Cited

Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ball, Eric L. 2000. "Negotiating Regional Identity in the 'Literature' of Everyday Life: The Case of a Cretan Mandinadhologos." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 26 (2): 59­­–94.

———. 2002. "Where Are the Folk? The Cretan Mantinada as Placed Literature." The Journal of Folklore Research 39 (2­–3): 147–172.

———. 2006. "Guarding the Wild: Place, Tradition, Literature and the Environment in the Work of a Cretan Folk Poet." Journal of American Folklore 119 (43): 275­–300.

———. 2013. Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right: Reflections, Rhymes, Rants, and Recipes. Albany: Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press.

———. 2015a. "It's Just a Job: Stanley Fish's Versions of Academic Freedom." SUNY Empire State College: All About Mentoring 47: 20­23.

———. 2015b. "Music Hospitality." March. Accessed 6 August 2017.

———. 2015c. "Public Scholarship and Neoliberalism." Journal of Modern Greek Studies 33 (1): 61­–66.

———. 2017. "Gouging Tradition: Musings on Fingernail Fiddle Making." Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore 43: 36–48.

Dawe, Kevin. 1996. "The Engendered Lyra: Music, Poetry and Manhood in Crete." British Journal of Ethnomusicology 5: 93–112.

———. 2003. "Lyres and the Body Politic: Studying Musical Instruments in the Cretan Musical Landscape." Popular Music and Society 26 (3): 263–283.

Faculty Handbook 2016-2017 of SUNY Empire State College. Saratoga Springs, NY: SUNY Empire State College.

Herzfeld, Michael. 1988. The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hnaraki, Maria. 2007. Cretan Music: Unraveling Ariadne's Thread. Athens: Kerkyra Publications.

Holland, Eugene W. 1993. Baudelaire and Schizoanalysis: The Socio-Poetics of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2006. "The Utopian Dimension of Thought in Deleuze and Guattari." Arena Journal 25–26: 217–242.

———. 2008. "Jazz Improvisation: Music of the People-to-Come." In Deleuze, Guattari and the Production of the New, edited by Simon O'Sullivan and Stephen Zepke. New York: Continuum, 196–205.

———. 2011. Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 2014. "Studies in Applied Nomadology: Jazz Improvisation and Post-Capitalist Markets." In Deleuze and Music, edited by Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 20–35.

League, Panayotis. n.d. "Rewriting Unwritten History: Folklore, Nationalism, and the Ban of the Cretan Violin." Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University. Accessed 10 August 2017.

Magrini, Tullia. 2000. "Manhood and Music in Western Crete: Contemplating Death." Ethnomusicology 44 (3): 429–459.

McClary, Susan. 1994. "Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music." In Queering the Pitch, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas. New York: Routledge.

Pavlopoulou, Agyro. 2011. “Musical Tradition and Change on the Island of Crete.” PhD diss., Goldsmiths, University of London. Accessed 26 September 2017.

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim. 2017. Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989. Oakland: University of California Press.

Sennett, Richard. 2007. The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sykäri, Venla. 2009. "Dialogues in Rhyme: The Performative Contexts of Cretan Mantinádes." Oral Tradition 24 (1): 89–123.

———. 2011. Words as Events: Cretan Mantinádes in Performance and Composition. Helsinki: Finnish Literary Society.

Taruskin, Richard. 2010. The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Late Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1 See especially Ball (2013, 112–114, 128–132, 135–143). See also Ball (2000) and Ball (2006) .

2 For a rather up-to-date look, in English, at Cretan music, see the dissertation by Pavlopoulou (2011). See also Hnaraki (2007).

3 For a thorough account in English of the contemporary mantinada see Sykäri (2011). For a briefer introduction see Sykäri (2009).

4 Cf. Turino (2008, 37­–44) on a function of repetition in participatory music.

5 Cf. Turino (2008, 30) on widespread misconceptions in the United States about participatory music being uniformly simple.

6 Cf. Turino (2008, 33–36) on values in participatory music.

7 Cf. Turino (2008, 47–48) on virtuoso performance in participatory music.

8 See Holland's (2006) distinction between blue-print utopianism—a matter of ideal representation focused on collective agreement about justice and the good——and a more diagnostic process-utopianism that emphasizes diagnosing our potential becomings from within a given sociohistorical context. It is the latter utopianist approach that I am guided by here.

9 Cf. Rutherford-Johnson (2017, 40–41) for examples of how some new ("classical") music seeks to move away from "the authority and autonomy of the performers and composers toward the experience and freedom of the audience" (40).

10 Cf. Taruskin (2010, 378–383).

11 Regarding gender issues in Cretan music, for example, see Dawe (1996), Dawe (2003), Herzfeld (1988), and Magrini (2000). Regarding the issue of nationalism, see, for example, League (n.d.).

12 Here I would be remiss if I did not point out that—perhaps especially in a neoliberal capitalist context that puts so much pressure on individuals—such collective decision-making need not actually occur in relation to shared or agreed upon values so much as through the negotiation of members' individual desires (though perhaps articulated with great sophistry by members to make them seem motivated by shared values), including the conscious and unconscious assumptions (e.g., about race, class, gender, etc.) that inform them and which may not be so egalitarian. Insofar as such individual self-interest does not undermine the success of the enterprise as a whole, it may continue to operate. I only point this out as a reminder that even in this case we inescapably remain in the realm of the ambivalent—politics surrounding collective decision-making within the enterprise do not go away.

13 It is questionable whether I should use the word "composing" in this context, insofar as I remain entirely outside of music composition as an academic field, even if I seek to be informed by it as much as possible when I judge that it will be useful. Just as the concept of "music" in academic contexts has been opened up a lot in the wake of ethnomusicology, it is my sense that what counts as music composition, even in academia, need not be owned entirely by music departments. Thus, I am trying to walk a fine line here: Neither do I mean to imply that "I am a composer" in the same sense as composers working within the traditions of composition connected with and located in music schools and music departments per se (individuals conventionally called composers), but neither do I wish to surrender the meaning of "academic composer" merely to music schools and music departments either, since (as I will discuss) academia is heterogeneous and remains a location for a range of different "experiments"—some more the norm and others more alternative or unconventional—regarding how intellectual and artistic work can be constituted as academic.

14 For more of my thoughts about academic freedom, see Ball (2015a, 2015c).

15 Cf. Ball (2015a).

16 See Taruskin (2010, 157–160).

17 Paul Dooley (D.M.A., University of Michigan; Lecturer of Performing Arts Technology, University of Michigan), personal communication, 2017.

18 Ting-Ju Lai (Ph.D., UCLA), personal communication, 2017.

19 David Biedenbender (D.M.A., University of Michigan; Assistant Professor of Composition, Michigan State University), personal communication, 2017.

20 Pascal Le Boeuf (Ph.D. student in Music Composition, Princeton University), personal communication, 2017.

21 See, for example, Sennett (2007). Cf. Rutherford-Johnson's (2017) comment that "In the world beyond music, the models of fluidity I have described suit modern capitalism well. Flexible workers are more easily exploited" (116).

22 I have used the word "radical" to describe the generalism at ESC in part because it strikes me as less clunky than something like "generalist-to-the-extreme." It also helps to signify that for at least some faculty in the institution, such generalism-to-the-extreme was or is not merely a matter of administrative efficiency, but also a particular progressive commitment, one which they may have seen or see as radical in a political sense, too.

23 See Ball (2015b)

24 I sometimes use instruments that I don't know how to play; I'm not much of a singer; I record everything with a USB microphone on my laptop and using only the most elementary features of freeware Audacity.

25 Cf. Ball (2017).

26 I acknowledge that so-called personal reasons are not always, if ever, separable from the sociopolitical forces acting upon and through a person.

27 Cf. Holland (2011, 85–89) for a discussion of Wikipedia in relation to egalitarian social change.