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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Reading Culture column, “The Late Tradition in Culture” by Tom van Buren
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Volume 33

The Late Tradition in Culture by Tom Van Buren

Last spring, I was invited to present a lecture about the late style of John Coltrane during a session of an interdisciplinary seminar at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The seminar was focused on the idea of late style, as discussed in theorist Edward Said’s posthumous book of the same title, which dealt with mostly classical composers and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers of the western cultural tradition. The idea of late style is to study the texts in a given artist’s work at a point late in life—but not necessarily when the artist is advanced in age—when the artist has somehow burst the boundaries of his or her fame. Such artists either redefine the paradigm of their earlier work or, in the case of Coltrane and a number of other subjects of both Said’s book and the seminar in question, break all (or most) of the rules that established their artistic careers, often alienating their audiences by single-mindedly pursuing an internal path.

My role was to speak from the perspective of ethnomusicology and folklore on the subject of an inscrutable musical genius, who reached the top of the field of jazz while helping to define its evolution, only to discard much of the style and structure that won him praise in favor of a pure—if raw—mode of musical expression. As an ethnomusicologist, I have tended to look beyond the subject of individuality in artistic creation, preferring to see wider trends in culture and broad swaths of shared meaning, sometimes known as tradition. We may choose to regard that tradition as something unchanging and fixed, or alternately, as something that evolves continuously within the bounds of its local community, ethnicity, or context, but we should not underestimate the power of certain individuals to alter or lead what later becomes a timeless cultural practice.

Before I studied ethnomusicology, I was a college jazz deejay and a moderately competent amateur saxophonist. I remember in workshops I attended, such as those of pianist Barry Harris and the late saxophonist John Stubblefield and other faculty of the Jazzmobile school, how master musicians would talk about being “in the tradition.” This self-reflective state emerged around the height of a free jazz movement, when formulas of structure were discarded by musicians like Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles and later in New York, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. The rapid eclipsing of one cultural era by another led some of these musicians to discard most of the notion of a cultural canon in favor of aggressive pursuit of an unbounded creativity. In reaction, others reinforced the notion of a shared repertoire, a set of skills, and predictable outcomes.

This was the subject I wanted to address in my talk: a late style of culture itself. It is not a product of individual genius created in a vacuum, as it were, but within evolving paradigms that alternately reflect a historical cultural center and the imperative to improvise under a new set of conditions or rules. Within this vein of analysis, traditions of folklore—in particular, the cultures of immigrants, so much the subject of New York’s folklore and folk arts programs—can also be studied. Many well-respected folk traditions, whether Irish reels and jigs and caeli dances, Ukrainian regional folk dance and pysanky, or the Puerto Rican bomba and plena traditions, are strongly affected by the urgency of immigrant or migrant communities to reinvent themselves or to return to roots and forms of expression that take on new meanings in new contexts.

I felt constrained by the focus on individual artists and their critically endorsed genius, when I knew that external historical and cultural conditions were at least as important to the development and perception of those artists and their work. The intimation of death or loss has led many artists to a renewed sense of urgency to pursue, against the odds and the better judgment of others, their own creative course. Some of the most compelling and haunting works of the historical record have been the result. At the same time, when we contemplate the fading traditions of the world, we perceive a much more varied and complex tapestry of cultures around us.

Before Said wrote the lectures that led to On Late Style, his previous book, Culture and Imperialism, offered a window into a wider notion of the late style of cultures. Looking at the pervasive effect of nineteenth-century European imperialism on almost the entire world, he demonstrated how every culture was in one way or another affected. Some non-Western colonial societies—at least the ruling classes—strove to emulate European forms. Other societies realigned every cultural sector, from traditional to popular culture, in compliance with or opposition to imperialist influences. Said’s analysis of the global cultural impact of the past two centuries bears up well in the current era of globalization, transnationalism, and migration. We are at a late style in culture itself. On a continuum of authenticity, tradition revivalism, and innovation, cultural worlds are colliding as they race through their evolution.

Perhaps the fascination with the late style of composers, writers, and other artists mirrors our reaction to the world’s own headlong race to render itself obsolete. I put this out to readers of Voices: How can we describe traditional culture as something living, other than in the context of the organic development of culture? In that regard, the current development appears to be a late one.
Reading Culture


Photo of Tom Van Buren Tom van Buren directs the folk arts programs of the Westchester Arts Council and serves as archivist for the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

My role was to speak from the perspective of ethnomusicology and folklore on the subject of an inscrutable musical genius, who reached the top of the field of jazz while helping to define its evolution, only to discard much of the style and structure that won him praise in favor of a pure—if raw—mode of musical expression.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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