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Music: It's More Than a Pastime

No matter what a person's birthplace, language or culture, one element tends to pop up as an expression of identity: music.

In fact, the interrelation between culture and music is so strong, so important, that an entire field of study is dedicated to it: ethnomusicology. Anthropology professor Pamela Moro is so passionate about the connection of music and society that she has dedicated much of her career to researching it -- from the flowing sounds of Thai classical music to the harmonies of gay and lesbian choruses. It's a passion she hopes to impart on her students, who listen to their own unending array of tunes.

"Music is so important in the lives of students," Moro says. "Their whole expression of identity comes out in what type of music they listen to."

Sounds from Thailand
Moro, who specializes in Asian culture, has been interested in Thailand's music ever since she was studying for her bachelor's degree in music at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1980s. She remembers taking classes to play in an Indonesian, percussion-heavy music ensemble on her campus, called a gamelan. These groups were popular at the time as universities wanted their students to experience non-Western music, she says.

Moro discovered that Thailand's music was similar to what she had learned in the gamelan, but that almost no experts had written about it. Thailand was never colonized so its traditional music had been studied by few outsiders, which intrigued Moro. When she switched to studying anthropology in graduate school, she spent a year in Thailand to further research the music. "As a nation, Thailand is musically diverse, but they also have Thai classical music," Moro says. "It's similar to European classical music in that it was patronized by royalty and performed in political and religious settings."

When Moro was in Thailand in the 1980s, classical music was seeing a resurgence after decades of being ignored by much of the populace. But the country was looking for symbols of national identity, Moro says, and the educated Thai middle class started promoting classical music and wanting their children to learn it. Today, Moro says Thai classical music still is something the government supports and schools teach to their students although it is not widely popular, similar to treatment of classical music in the U.S.

So what does Thai classical music sound like? "It tends to be soft and flowing," Moro says. "Some people compare it to currents of water." It follows a scale where all the notes are a whole step apart, which can sound off-pitch to those accustomed to Western music with its scales that include whole and half steps. It includes many percussion instruments, such as xylophones and gongs, and some stringed instruments that are either played with a bow or plucked with a plectrum. When singing is involved, only solo vocalists are used. Many songs have a spiritual focus, associated with the Buddhist temple or life cycle rituals, Moro says.

Music as a Movement
A more recent music research interest of Moro's is gay and lesbian choruses. She recalls several years ago being aware that such choruses existed, but knowing little more. Moro sought out the local Willamette Valley Mixed GALA Chorus and quickly became friends with many of its members.

Moro obtained a grant through the Lilly Project in 2004 that allowed her to travel with the local chorus to a festival in Montreal. She wanted to spend more time with these choruses to learn why people in the gay community would turn to music as a cultural outlet.

Her answer depended on whom she asked. Some chorus members saw the activity as a social bonding experience. Others wanted to raise more awareness about gay and lesbian societal issues. Some saw the choruses as a form of protest -- something that made sense to Moro as she thought back to the strong tradition in the U.S. of music as a form of protest (e.g., the civil rights movement or the anti-Vietnam War protests).

One commonality Moro saw among the choruses was that they weren't just haphazardly created; they all had mission statements and were specific about what they wanted to accomplish. The choruses' varying goals also determined their varying repertoires. Many had an eclectic repertoire that might include classical music, Broadway tunes and current popular songs. Moro found that some composers wrote songs specifically for gay choruses, often tackling important societal issues gay people face.

Moro also used her Lilly Project grant money to bring the Portland Gay Men's Chorus to campus last April for a performance that included "Metamorphosis," an expansive choral/orchestral song cycle that centers on the struggles of coming out within families and communities of faith. Portland's chorus, founded in 1980, is one of the oldest gay-identified choruses in the country.