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Experiencing Musical Connection: Sonic Interventions in Mediterranean Social Memory


Andalucía, Spain's southernmost region is the epicenter of a contemporary scene comprised of North African and European musicians whose projects integrate aspects of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) genres with elements of Spanish flamenco, related Iberian folkloric styles, and European early music. This ethnography of collaborative, mixed-musical practices explores how key musicians in this scene find ways to engage diverse backgrounds and trainings as they seek to combine musical systems, and how they consider their projects in the context of a contested past that links the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa. Following the ways in which these artists explore both real and imagined links between musical systems and historical trajectories, I argue that a phenomenon of experiencing musical connection—by which I refer to a complex mix of perceiving, desiring, and believing in a musical, cultural, or historical tie between musical practices and practitioners—animates music-making practices in several ways. This phenomenon impels the pursuit of the past as remembered and understood; nourishes the acquisition of new musical abilities; and illuminates a set of interactive possibilities within an ensemble, ultimately inspiring novel forms of musical creativity.

Further, I suggest that some of the musical recordings and performances that emerge from these collaborations make what I am calling sonic interventions in Mediterranean social memory, undercutting standard histories that obscure, deny, or efface the sizeable contribution of Arab-Islamic culture to Spain and Portugal, and revealing—in the sense of recovering and manifesting anew— points of continuity and cultural overlap between North Africa, the Middle East, and the Iberian Peninsula. Through the course of the thesis I develop the theoretical notion of sonic intervention in parallel with the concept of musicality as a multifaceted sensibility, an idea that treats musical thinking and memory as active, creative processes that register at multiple levels, from the personal, to the interpersonal, and finally to larger social groups.

In order to understand the phenomenon of musical connection and the different ways that musicians intervene in collective memory, this thesis traces two lines of inquiry. The first relates to how musicians make creative use of the past, particularly the contested cultural legacy of al-Andalus. I explore how several Moroccan-Spanish (more broadly, MENA-Euro) collaborative projects based in present-day Andalusia are animated by particular ways of relating to the past as remembered.

The second aspect of my inquiry concerns issues in music cognition having to do with competence, multimusicality, and musical thinking in ensemble interaction—how musicians of different backgrounds and sensibilities (languages, desires, etc.) relate to one another and work together. While the collaborations I discuss often draw on a pervasive, intuited sense of similarity between musical styles, in fact they require, sustain, and develop a diverse set of knowledges, skills, creative faculties, and sensibilities that are distributed throughout an ensemble.

As the project moves between close analysis of musical practices and broader discussion of the larger, contested narratives of a shared cultural past, I explore how musicians from both sides of the Gibraltar Strait experience, negotiate, and make sense of their presumably shared cultural inheritance. Ultimately this thesis argues for a dynamic, intimate, and mutually informing relationship between musical competence and collective memory. In so doing this dissertation contributes to a more nuanced understanding of early-21st-century, collaborative music making in the Western Mediterranean.

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