Career Path with a Beat

REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 21, 2000 — This year, as America sits down to listen to the rhythms of Latin pop, the twang of the Dixie Chicks or watch the next Ricky Martin sweep the Grammy Awards, ethnomusicologists might hear the beat a bit differently. Whether it’s wailing blues or the hypnotic strumming of the Indian sitar, ethnomusicologists not only can name that tune, but also can identify its origin and cultural significance.

It may sound like a dream job to music lovers, but this career is more than just easy listening. Typically, an ethnomusicologist evaluates how music and culture intertwine. But with advancements in technology and the evolution of music as we know it, the job description continues to change. Michael Monhart, for example, spends his days in true
“surround sound,” weaving audio and video clips into the Microsoft® Encarta® multimedia encyclopedia.

Monhart just finished a typical project – selecting the best audio to illustrate an article on the music of Southern India. His pick: nagasvaram,
“a music you have to hear to understand, words just don’t come close to describing it.”
Working with a fellow ethnomusicologist, of which there are five on the Encarta learning team, Monhart was able to locate one of the finest contemporary players of this music in the world. Then came the crucial, but decidedly nonartistic part of the job: arranging licensing for a clip of the performer’s music and ultimately developing a sound file for publication.
“Just keeping track of the editorial, licensing, contract and payment information for a wide range of projects is a mammoth task,”
Monhart said.

But what really fills Monhart’s world with aural satisfaction is his daily diet of musical bits and bytes.
“Little by little, technology is allowing us to create a new way to learn,”
he said.
“One of the biggest thrills is being able to expose young students to new sounds. When I was in school, if I was doing a report on Nigeria, I only had words as reference points. With software and online research tools like Encarta, students can hear examples of traditional and popular Nigerian music and even watch Nigerian dancers perform right on the computer screen. It makes the learning experience more complete, and sparks people’s curiosity to learn more.”

Taking on the world comes naturally to Monhart, who first became fascinated with understanding the cultural associations of a country’s music while he was in college.
“It’s a window into another world, another culture. I want to help open some of these windows,”
he said. Like most ethnomusicologists, he combined mastery of an instrument – the saxophone – with rigorous studies of language, culture and history. And he spent years listening to diverse sounds from all around the world.
“I’ll never forget the big horns wailing and cymbals crashing in a Tibetan monastery, or seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra perform its unique brand of free jazz,”
Monhart said.

Then there is the more high-profile perk of a life spent surrounded by the sound of music: meeting famous musicians. The most memorable for Monhart was, as he said,
“Q himself, Quincy Jones.”
Working on a music time line for Encarta Africana 2000, Monhart went to the famed producer’s home for a consultation.
“He was quite gracious, very knowledgeable about all aspects and eras of the African-American music tradition, and he provided us with great input.”
Another favorite:
“Sir Mix a Lot. We shot a video for Encarta Africana showing how he uses technology to create a rap song,”
Monhart said.
“It’s a vivid depiction of a process not easily conveyed in words. That’s why Encarta is such a great visual aid for learning – traditional learning just can’t capture things like this.”

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