Robert E. Brown

Coiner of the term 'world music'

Thursday 22 December 2005 01:00 GMT

Robert Edward Brown, musicologist and musician: born Utica, New York 18 April 1927; died La Mesa, California 29 November 2005.

In 1977, Nasa launched a space probe to go beyond the solar system as a "message into the cosmos". The astronomer Carl Sagan oversaw the contents of this flying time capsule: visual images, messages in ancient and modern languages and a selection of music including Bach, Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson, Navajo, Japanese shakuhachi and Javanese court music. That last contribution to intergalactic understanding was a 1971 recording by the musicologist Robert E. Brown.

In 1906, 17 years after Javanese dancers, gongs and metallophones - the first art music from foreign parts to really engage the Western musical mind in modern times - had enchanted Claude Debussy and turned his ears at the Paris Exposition of 1889, a German musicologist lit a slow fuse when he used the word Weltmusik in print. Claims have been made for Brown's coining its English equivalent "world music" before it became a record industry marketing term from 1987 onwards. Several say Brown was using the term at Wesleyan University in the 1960s and it is on the record that the Center for World Music opened in Berkeley, California in 1974 - Bob Brown was a leading light in its organisation.

Brown was born in Utica, New York, in 1927 and was schooled in Clinton, New York where he learned timpani, bass drum, double bass and cello. Later he played in a dance band called the One Meatball. Percussion was an early defining interest of his, and at Utica Conservatory he studied music theory and piano.

In 1945, he joined the US Navy and was posted to Washington, DC. On discharge he went to Ithaca College, Cornell University and UCLA, where he majored in music. He obtained Fulbright and Ford Foundation grants during the late 1950s before obtaining a post at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (1962-71).

Wesleyan would become a world-music hothouse. It went beyond the academic by providing teaching posts for musicians, and their influence spilled out into the wider world through the conduit of the New York-based Nonesuch Explorer label whose Peter Siegel revelled in this "new music". One of Nonesuch's specialities was Carnatic music, the art music of South India, which had been a lifelong inspiration for Brown; the 1965 dissertation for his doctorate in ethnomusicology from UCLA, "The Mrdanga: a study of drumming in South India", concerned an Indian double-headed barrel drum.

Brown relocated to the West Coast after Wesleyan, working with the California Institute of the Arts, the Center for World Music and San Diego State University. Amongst the Nonesuch LPs that he recorded during this period were Javanese Court Gamelan from the Pura Paku Alaman, Jogyakata (1971), Javanese Court Gamelan, Volume II (1977, recorded at the Istana Mangkunegaran, Surakarta) and Javanese Court Gamelan, Volume III (1979, recorded at the Kraton, Yogyakarta). They were amongst the most influential of the era. Describing the great reception hall (pendopo) in Jogyakarta where the 1971 recording was made, Brown wrote evocatively,

Occasionally muffled sounds from the busy streets outside the compound and the twittering of flights of sparrows that made their nests in the rafters of the pendopo are a part of the normal sound ambience. The musicians, austere and in formal court dress, sat quietly amid the mellow bronze and carved wooden cases of the gamelan instruments.

Although South Asian and Indonesian music are what he will be primarily remembered for, Bob Brown also galvanised interest in West African drumming, inaugurated world music events on the West Coast and left behind a legacy of Balinese and Javanese recordings that freezes cultures in transition.

Ken Hunt

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