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2014 Charles Seeger Lecturer: Mark Slobin
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Improvising a Musical Metropolis: Detroit, 1940s-1960s
Mark Slobin
Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music
Wesleyan University

Over the course of his long career, Mark Slobin has been president of the Society for Ethnomusicology (1989-91), president of the Society for Asian Music (1987-89), a professor at Wesleyan University for over forty years, and the author and/or editor of twenty books.

His first three books — Kirgiz Instrumental Music (1969), Central Asian Music (1975), and Music in the Culture of Northern Afghanistan (1976) —documented a part of the world practically unknown in the U.S. at the time.
His contributions to Jewish studies in the 1980s and 1990s include Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (1982), which won the first of his ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards; Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (1982), which he translated from Russian and edited; Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate (1989); and Yiddish Theater in America: David’s Violin (1897) and Shloyme Gorgl (189-) (Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater, Vol. 11) (1994).

In 1993, Slobin wrote one of the classics of our discipline, Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West, and developed his quest for a way to talk about layered and constantly evolving musical systems. In this work, he discusses how people live at the intersection of three types of cultures: the superculture, the subculture, and the interculture, which involve the overlaps, intersections, and nestings of all three.

In 1996, Slobin edited the volume Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe, in which he develops the idea of a layered musical consciousness consisting of three strata, all of which occur simultaneously in the present:

1. Current music, in the forefront of attention
2. Recent music, the seedbed of the current
3. Long-term, operating at another level of memory, but just as immediate as the others. “Music history is reborn everyday as a clustering of available sound resources.” (p.11)

In the 2000s, Slobin wrote four more books relating to Jewish musical traditions, including Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World, which won his second ASCAP-Deems Taylor book award; and American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots (2002). His scholarship has also included collaboratively editing and translating Beregovski’s Jewish Instrumental Folk Music (2001) and A Treasury of Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive (2007) (with Chana Mlotek).

The last publication I will mention is his contribution to the Oxford University Press series: Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction (2011).

“But don’t look for a chronology . . . Things loop back, spiral out, and sometimes even repeat themselves. No musician can step in the same cultural flow twice. Yet that musician might travel up or downstream, stand on the rocks in the middle, or jump across them in daring ways. This restless creativity perhaps best defines folk music. Even natural “folk,” like the humpback whales, change their favorite songs from year to year.” (p. 3)
Like his musical subjects from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, New York City, and beyond, Slobin “loops back, spirals out, and sometimes even repeats himself.” “Restless creativity” defines not only musicians, but Mark Slobin himself.

- Judith Becker

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