Category Archives: Interdisciplinarity

Research sources for Jewish (music) studies

For researchers on (South African) Jewish music, the following resources may be useful:

African Jewish Congress

Black Jews of Southern Africa

Department of Religious Studies, University of Cape Town

Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS)

Faith Communities and apartheid

International Jewish Cemetery Project: South Africa

Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch Centres in South Africa

Jewish Communities of the World: Jewish South Africa

Jewish Currents

Jewish Genealogy Blog

Jewish Geneology Main Site

Jewish Photo Library

Jewish Research in South Africa (Ancestry24)

Jewish South African SIG (Special Interest Group)

Jewish Women’s Archive

Kaplan Centre, University of Cape Town

Music, Memory and Migration in the Post-Holocaust Jewish Experience-Pro

South Africa: Jewish Family History Research Guide

South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation

South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD)

South African Jewish Museum

South African Jewish Year Book Database

South African Union for Progressive Judaism

Telfred

Tikvath Israel Congregation

Witbank Jewish Community

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New Music Forum Debut: Embarking on a journey

At 20:00 on the evening of 24 April, in the Music Library of Stellenbosch University I presented the debut performance/discussion of the New Music Forum. This is a forum solely focused on the performance and discussion of New Music as aimed at, and presented predominantly by, undergraduate students. Not only music students are welcome, instead, the forum is open to all at the university. The intention is to create exposure of New Music within the Conserve but also to engage in collaborative projects which will see the inclusion of students from other departments. That these objectives were achieved could be seen in the audience who attended the debut performance. They included students from the Drama, Fine Arts, and Music departments (as far as I could recognise them). Invitations were also extended to students at the philosophy department.

The programme for this concert included Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica. These works were performed by an ensemble consisting of Sulayman Human (piano), Ernst Van Tonder (e-flat and b-flat clarinets), Arthur Feder (alto saxophone), Le-Nique Brand (tuba), David Bester (violin), and Thuthuka Sibisi (voice). After the performance there was a brief interval and the audience reconvened for a discussion.

What follows is a manifesto for the works that were performed:
There are two points of departure for this project:
One: the project had to overcome the practical concern which is the specificity of instrumentation of New Music scores. I had to choose a piece that was written for players that I knew would be willing and committed to making such a project come to life but that also allowed for choice in terms of timbre that was artistically sought.
Two: the project sought to create commentary on a broader social concern.
I decided that Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica would be the best works for the job as it addressed both these problems.

These works meet the first point of departure in that they are open-score works. Besides for the need to have the base line sounded and a voice to perform the text, the score only mentions that an ensemble of any size (and instrumentation) can be used. Later in the performance procedure it does, however, require a differentiation between high and low instruments. Nonetheless, the open score format led me and Lise Morrison (co-producer of this project) to decide on the instrumentation as stated because we knew we could not only rely on these players but that three composition students could be incorporated, aiding with the strong improvisation aspect of the work. Furthermore, it created an unconventional instrumentation which was aesthetically very attractive.

In addressing the second point of departure, we should look more closely at the works themselves. The first part of the work sees the reading of a letter that was written by Samuel Melville during his detention in Attica prison. The American prison system, quite rightly, limited his freedom. But with freedom comes the individual’s capacity unto himself. When freedom is taken away, so is this capacity. This might not seem like such a bad thing but it does leave the individual reliant on the institution’s decision as to his fate. This becomes extremely dangerous when a question of survival is at stake.

Attica prison took away Melville’s capacity unto himself. They created a cage in which he had very limited means to defend himself during a prison riot that he instigated. Subsequently, he and 28 other prisoners were shot dead by New York State police, New York National Guard and former correctional officers. The phenomenon of misuse of power is not only reserved for the USA and this is where the project finds contextualisation in South Africa. As we speak there is a commission of enquiry running to examine the happenings of what has been referred to as the worst single case of lethal force used by South African security forces since the Sharpville massacre(1) . This incident is, of course, the Marikana mine workers tragedy. In a similar sense the mine workers found themselves at the mercy of an institution which took away their capabilities to defend themselves.

On 16 August 2012 34 people were killed and 78 wounded when the South African Police Service opened fire on the protesters. The institution here does not only include the SAPS. The National Union of Mineworkers (or NUM) also had a role to play. Corrupt leadership opened fire on its own members when they called for a strike. This forced the miners belonging to this union to take wildcat strike action. However, the combination of the abandonment by the NUM and the calling in of the cavalry led to the subsequent loss of life.

One can easily get lost in the blame game but what we can see by this incident is that the miners who gave up their capacity of freedom and their power unto themselves to the institutions of the NUM and the SAPS fell victim to violence.
This is, however, not an isolated incident in South Africa. Since 2010 the SAPS has incurred R334-million in legal fees due to civil claims with 5090 incidents between 2011 and 2012(2) alone. These are cases of police brutality, wrongful arrests and unlawful detention, to name but a few. It should be said that this is an institution we do not have a choice in joining other than having the choice to leave the country or to change the system.

It is upon this notion of institutional dangers that this works delivers commentary. We are subject to it but so few of us are aware of the dangers that come with it.

The question of change lies in the second part of the work. The utterance “Attica is in front of me” was made by inmate Richard Clark to a reporter when he was released. The statement was provoked by the question “how does it feel to leave Attica behind you?” Does what happened ever lie behind us when it has happened or will it always be in front of us, an object that we can confront, chase and catch, grappling with it for the change that is required(3)?

So what we have is then an artistic production that comments on the dangers of the institution. This is achieved by a re-contextualisation of commentary that is delivered on institutions in the USA into a South African setting that is faced with similar problems. The practical problem of performance of New Music has been addressed by the use of an open- score work in this performance but, of course, the question of artistic commentary on societal change still remains open.

It is hard to judge exactly how long the discussion that ensued from the reading of this manifesto lasted, but if I were to guess I would say between 20 and 30 minutes. Important points were raised including: the notion of actually having such an interpretation read after the performance and whether it should not happen before the concert. Further comments related to the content of the work and its powerful representation of institutional dangers. I am glad to report that the debut was a success, purely taken on the fact that there was a bigger audience than there were chairs (and wine glasses, a problem that will have to be addressed urgently) and by the fact that the library-cum-concertising space was still full for the discussion after the interval.

Of course such a platform, the work presented and the future of such an endeavour still requires critical engagement and this is where I urge you as reader of this post to respond, regardless of whether you were there on the evening or not.

-William Fourie, 3rd year BMus Stellenbosch University

End notes:

1. Richard Stupart (16 August 2012). The Night Before Lomnin’s Explanations. African Scène [Online] http://www.africanscene.co.za/2012/08/the-night-before-lonmins-explanation/. Retrieved 20 April 2013.

2. This statistic was taken from Sarah Evan’s recent article on the Mail & Guardian website [found at: http://mg.co.za/article/2013-04-14-police-brutality-study-cops-cases-sued]: Police brutality: No silver bullet for costly concerns (15 April 2013).

3. This was attempted in the performance by manically warping the voice part at first and gradually changing it to sung voice.

Thoughts on disciplinary agency and interdisciplinarity

A response by Paula Fourie to ‘The fate of the Disciplines’, James Chandler and Arnold J. Davidson (Eds), Critical Inquiry, Summer 2009,Vol. 35, No. 4.

‘The fate of the disciplines’ is an issue of Critical Enquiry that explores a central issue voiced by James Chandler in his introduction, namely that the structure of the university was solidified in a specific time and place and that, given the opportunity, one would design a different university system today.  This debate focuses around the issues of disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity, with contributions in this volume standing on both sides of the divide.

Chandler first of all defines a discipline as a concept that is distinguished not only on the basis of a set of established methodologies, but also as something that carries connotations of identity, before chronicling the advent of interdisciplinarity in the academe and introducing some of the debates that have centered around it.   Opening this volume are two essays by Robert Post and Judith Butler, concerned not only with defining the concept of a ‘discipline’, but also centering on the possible loss of academic freedom through the proliferation of interdisciplinary studies.

Following Post and Butler’s articles, there are eight essays debating disciplinary practice and change from the ‘disciplines’ of science studies, cinema studies, theology, philology and visual arts.  Lorraine Daston reflects on the gradual drift between the recent disciplines, history of science and science studies, noting that a discipline is reified on the basis of its use of an established set of methodologies.  Mario Biagioli actively calls for interdisciplinary partnerships between the humanities and science in order to ‘redeem’ the former, his view on interdisciplinarity projects being that they problem-orientated research clusters that are frequently too short-lived to merit institutionalization.

The two essays regarding theology, by Saba Mahmood and Amy Hollywood, illustrate through repeated claims of contemporary relevance the difficulties faced by a waning discipline that was once considered the pinnacle of the university.  Likewise, the essays on philology and the classics, respectively by Sheldon Pollock and François Hartog reflect anxiety about the future of their disciplines in the wake of capitalist concerns and modernity.  This anxiety lies so deep that both Pollock and Hartog deny and lament the current disciplinarity of their disciplines, with Pollock stating that ‘we have failed spectacularly to conceptualize our own disciplinarity’ (p. 947), and Hartog that fragmentation has rendered the Classics ‘well outside disciplinary boundaries’ (p. 966).

The two articles by Dudley Andrew and Gertrud Koch are concerned with one of the newest disciplines, film studies.  Dudly shows that there was some resistance from the critical public to have the study of film enter the institution and become disciplined.  In contrast to many of the contributors to this volume who regard formalized or uniform methodology as a prerequisite for the constitution of a discipline, he takes a subject-orientated approach that regards film itself as a disciplining factor.  The articles on the arts by W. J. T. Mitchell and Bill Brown focus on the question of whether it is possible or even desirable to discipline creative arts.  Brown in particular deals with the notion of artworks as measurable research output within an academic institution.  The final two articles in ‘The fate of the Disciplines’ once again deal with the broader issues surrounding interdisciplinarity.  David Wellbery attempts to use systems theory to explain disciplinary formation and interaction, while Marshall Sahlins is concerned with the influence of capitalist aspirations on the organization of the university.

Throughout the pages of this volume, contributors reflect on the causes for interdisciplinary research projects and their effect on existing disciplines and university structures.  Several contributors lament the proliferation of interdisciplinarity centers and institutions that have arisen to breach the challenges posed by traditional research environments, most notably Sahlins who comments that ‘all that clutters is not gold’ (p. 1017).  Besides channeling funding away from established disciplines, the institutionalization of interdisciplinary projects is seen by some to present a threat to academic freedom.  Post argues that the upholding of academic norms within disciplines ensures the production of expert knowledge that can lay claim to academic autonomy from external forces.  However, Butler shows this to be a difficult situation, arguing that, without critical enquiry (which often is forced to assume a rogue position in relation to existing thought) these selfsame norms become redundant and detrimental to true academic freedom.

Wellbery’s essay attempts to explain disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity with reference to Niklas Luhmann’s application of systems theory.   He regards disciplines as organic systems capable of reproducing themselves and, in contrast to regarding a discipline as founded on either methodology or subject, locates ‘the unity of the discipline’ in the ‘recursive connectivity of its operations as a self-reproducing social system’ (p. 993).  From this perspective, disciplines determine their course by continually evaluating the relevance or irrelevance of available discourses, following circular paths that are unhindered by static boundaries.  Far from a laissez fair approach, Wellbery distinguishes between different types of systems coupling as conceptualized by Luhmann, ranging from ‘occasional interdisciplinarity’ to ‘problem-oriented interdisciplinarity’ and ‘transdisciplinarity’ (pp. 988-9). Informed by cybernetics and Foucault’s discourse on interdisciplinarity, Wellbery moreover emphasizes that constraint, as embodied in disciplinary distinctions, becomes a prerequisite for communication in complex systems.

‘The fate of the disciplines’ contains contributions from scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, all brought together to share their thoughts on disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity.   Seeing as this in itself constitutes an interdisciplinary endeavor, I set out to discover if the study of interdisciplinarity had spawned any institutes as yet.  This lead me to the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity housed at the University of North Texas, who pride themselves on being the first center focused on the issue of interdisciplinarity itself.  According to their website (www.csid.unt.edu), this center is committed to providing resources to scholars engaged in interdisciplinary studies, promoting experiments across disciplines, recognizing institutional barriers to interdisciplinarity, establishing indicators capable of measuring the success or failure of interdisciplinary projects and ‘developing a set of best practices for interdisciplinarity’.  Concerning their focused topic and the desire to develop methodology, one is forced to conclude that this center is concerned with disciplining interdisciplinary studies.

The contributions in ‘The fate of the disciplines’ have shown that the relationship between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity is a contentious one, a problem around which scholars from different disciplines have gathered. Ironically, this seems to be leading to the formation of a new discipline, and one wonders whether its institutionalization is merited, considering, as shown by Wellbery, the often-transitory nature of transdisciplinary projects.  Disciplines are plastic and subject to evolution, but as argued by Hunt in Chandler, interdisciplinarity ‘depends on the certainty of disciplinary boundaries’ (p. 741).  The one cannot exist without the other.

Wellbery’s hypothesis of systemic contact makes it possible to engage with various discourses that we deem relevant to our own subject matter and interests, yet conscious of the temporary boundaries of our malleable academic communities or disciplines.   As to Post’s concern regarding the detrimental effect of interdisciplinarity on the production of expert knowledge and subsequent academic autonomy, I would like to argue that the purpose of undergraduate and graduate programs is not first and foremost the mastery of a set of ideas or methods, but rather the cultivation of a critical mind that knows how to apply itself to concepts and problems.  The judicious engagement with borrowed theory may, considering that complex systems interact with their environment on a non-linear basis, result in unexpected and fruitful results and not in a watering-down of expertise.

This interaction should be seen as no more threatening than the movement of solvent molecules through the thin membrane of a biological cell.   Such a membrane is selectively permeable, just as a discipline has agency in choosing which of the available discourses to interact with.   Moreover, osmosis and diffusion are necessary to ensure the vitality of a cell and to enable the cellular walls to regulate its internal pressure.  As Wellbery has shown, far from merely negative forces, control and restriction should be seen as prerequisites to effective communication.  Perhaps this could provide a model for interdisciplinary scholars lamenting disciplinary boundaries, just as it should remind those opposed to interdisciplinary projects that preventing movement through their walls only starves the discipline from within.