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From Mongolian folk music to 21st-century arts organizations

Peter Marsh

Peter Marsh

  • April 27, 2010 1:00am

Curious how faculty members spend their time away from the classroom?

Peter Marsh, assistant professor of music, hangs out in yurts, or gers as they’re known in Mongolia, tracking the roots of ancient nomadic folk music that is fading fast as the country and its traditions speed toward modernization.

Michael Moon, an assistant professor in public affairs and administration, lends his expertise to arts organizations as a consultant. His advice often surprises his clients.
Marsh and Moon participated April 22 in the sixth New Faculty Research Colloquium presented by the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. CLASS introduced the New Faculty Research Colloquium as a way to introduce members of the university community to the range of research conducted by faculty members. Previous sessions have highlighted research ranging from crime scene reconstruction to the Danish response to saving Jews during World War II.

During his discussion, “Horses, Fiddles and Song: Searching for Musical History in Modern Mongolia,” Marsh shared video and audio clips and images from his travels to the country wedged between China and Russia.

Among people living a nomadic, herding lifestyle, singing and music accompany many aspects of everyday life. Aside from providing entertainment, singing often served a useful purpose, Marsh explained. Singing to a yak, for instance, may calm the animal and allow it to produce more milk.

Singing also reflects spiritual beliefs. In one video clip made with the permanently snow-capped Jargalant Mountain in the background, a Mongolian man sings in honor of the spirit that resides in the mountain. The most fascinating part of Marsh’s presentation occurred during the song as the singer demonstrated a style called biphonic singing. As he emitted a low, rumbling sound from deep in his chest, the performer simultaneously sang higher, melodic notes, a feat that the untrained voice would have trouble imitating.

Moon’s talk focused on “Organizational Values as Focal Points of Emerging Commitment, Accountability and Paradox for a Performing Arts Center.” The topic, he said, grew out of a consulting job with a large, established East Bay organization that presents arts and cultural performances year round.

Studies about arts organizations reveal that most groups state that artistic excellence is the guiding factor for the organization, when in reality financial concerns ultimately drive the operation. Moon encourages clients to work with the tensions produced by these competing values, which he says no one has figured out how to reconcile.

“We expect leaders to have answers,” Moon said.

But it’s impossible when conditions are constantly changing and “hits are coming at them at all times.” In response, he suggests that clients focus on “performative reflexivity” which calls for admitting that no one has the answers. Instead, he promotes a process of organizing in which every staff member shares responsibility.


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