On Tuesday, November 30, Dr. Robert Mathews gave a 50-minute presentation on music and its translation through the cultures as part of a crossing borders segment in room 201 at the Marysville Campus. He wowed the audience with his entertaining presentation lacing it with snippets of music from different parts of the world with the help of a sound system. At times he played the guitar and the piano to add spice and rhythm to the music he played.
A music professor at the Marysville Yuba College Campus, Mathews has received a B.A. in Music Education as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in Music Composition and Theory. He has traveled around the world observing different styles of music and studying its translation from one culture to another. The countries Mathews has visited include Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Canada, Mexico, South America, Peru, Buenos Aires and Argentina. Mathews also spent seven years in Korea and taught music classes at the University of Maryland Korean Division.
“What’s culture?” he asked an expectant audience. “It’s a way of living,” he answered. While in America, Mathews had never understood why some residents here from other countries chose not to adapt or conform to American culture. Once he had traveled, however, the tables were turned and he began to realize that doing this wasn’t as easy as he had thought. According to Mathews, we decide that a certain movement or gesture is polite such as the handshake. As a guest in the many different countries, Mathews was expected to adapt to the different ways and gestures that weren’t necessarily what he was used to and realized that it took quite a bit of time to adjust. In Korea, for example, he was expected to bow as a form of respect. Having returned to America after being in Korea for so long, he sometimes felt compelled to bow and received many comments because of this.
“Culture, he realized, was a powerful force to be reckoned with. When we want to cross cultures, we have to do some work to cross that wall.”
According to Mathews, in the same way that conforming to the ways of other cultures may be difficult to some, music is also difficult to sift through if one is not used to it. There are thousands of things that come to us through music; we filter out anything that we are not comfortable with. We let certain things through and not others. Mathews even said that music stations were classified according to genre because of the filters people have that allow them to listen only to what they want to hear. According to Mathews, cultural filters are a time saving device because we decide within the first three seconds if we’re going to like something or not. He compared this to a smile. Smiling at someone you don’t know saves time in that it lets the other person know that you are friendly and approachable. “We grew up with the [AM/FM] radio,” he said. “Drum, bass, guitar, pop sound, backbeat, that’s our filter. When someone says they hate opera, they probably didn’t take the time to listen to it.”
To prove this, he played the same music twice. The song was entitled The Rabbit Dance Song and pertained to the Iroquois tribe. The first time he played it, the Native American music was loud, harsh, and without a beat. It seemed foreign and incomprehensible. The second time, however, Joann Shenandoah, who translated the song into a soft, beautiful melody that was easier to listen to, sang the vocals. The second time around, the music had more appeal and seemed more familiar. This is where our filter allowed us to pick and choose what we liked and what we didn’t. “There is a huge, rich culture that’s lost in translation,” said Mathews in reference to the uniqueness of the music. “If you hate country music, rock, rap, heavy metal, there’s a piece of music with your name on it,” he said. “Listen to that filter. You’ll be the richer for it,” he concluded.