Niko Higgins

BA, Wesleyan University. MA, MPhil, PhD, Columbia University. Ethnomusicologist and saxophonist. Interests in South Indian classical music and fusion, jazz, world music, improvisation, globalization, cosmopolitanism, sound studies, and ecomusicology. Author of two articles on South Indian fusion and leader and producer of two recordings. Taught at Columbia University, Montclair State University, and The New School. Fulbright and Fulbright Hays recipient. SLC, 2015–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

Music

Cross-Cultural Listening

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course may be counted for either humanities or social science distribution credit. It may also be taken as a semester-long component. No prior experience in music is necessary.

This course will explore the relationship of listening, music, and sound across different cultural and historical contexts. Recent scholarship on listening and sound has revealed how listening plays a crucial role in the formulation of theories about music, and we will study how various ideas about listening inform contemporary understandings of music and sound. Drawing from cultural theory, research from the field of sound studies, and ethnographic case studies from ethnomusicology and anthropology, we will understand key concepts of listening with specific musical and sonic examples. Course units may include technologies of listening, listening as an impetus for empathy and to stimulate political action, strategies for listening to cultural and musical difference, and music and sound as tools for torture and for healing. Individual class sessions may include sound technologies such as the phonograph and the MP3; soundscapes; music therapy; and the listening contexts of individual genres such as Iranian pop, Buddhist chant, Balinese Gamelan, muzak, and EDM. Participation in the Gamelan Angklung Chandra Buana (Balinese music ensemble) is strongly encouraged.

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Ecomusicology: Music, Activism, and Climate Change

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course may be counted as either humanities or social science credit. It may also be taken as a semester-long component. No prior experience in music is necessary.

This course looks at the intersections of music, culture, and nature. We will explore music in nature, music about nature, and the nature of music in the human experience. We will study how artists and musicians are using music and sound to address climate change by surveying important trends in the young field of ecomusicology, such as soundscape studies, environmental musical criticism, acoustic ecology, and animal musicalities. Themes will range from music vs. sound and the cultural construction of nature to aurality and the efficacy of sonic activism. Class sessions may include Appalachian coal mining songs, indigenous music from the Arctic, art music composition, soundscapes, field recordings, birdsong, soundwalks, and musical responses to environmental crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan. Participation in the Faso Foli (West African percussion) ensemble is strongly encouraged.

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Cross-Cultural Listening

Component—Fall

See full course description under Lecture and Seminars.

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Ecomusicology: Music, Activism and Climate Change

Component—Spring

See full course description under Lecture and Seminars.

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West African Percussion Ensemble Faso Foli

Component—Spring

Faso Foli is the name of our West African performance ensemble: It is a Malinke phrase that translates loosely as "playing to my father's home." In this class, we will develop the ability to play expressive melodies and intricate polyrhythms in a group context, as we recreate the celebrated musical legacy of the West African Mande Empire. These traditions have been kept alive and vital through creative interpretation and innovation in Africa, in the United States and in other parts of the world. Correspondingly, our repertoire will reflect a wide range of expressive practices, both ancient in origin and dynamic in contemporary performance. The instruments we play—balafons, dun dun drums, and djembe hand drums—were constructed for the College in 2006, handcrafted by master builders in Guinea. Relevant instrumental techniques will be taught in the class, and no previous experience with African musical practice is assumed. Any interested student may join.

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Previous Courses

Transformation Sounds! Ethnomusicology and Social Change

Open , Lecture—Fall

No prior experience in music is necessary. This lecture may be taken for either humanities or social science credits. It also may be taken as a semester-long component.

This course features the interdisciplinary study of music and culture by focusing on the role of music in social change. Why is music so important to social movements? How is music used to both challenge and support certain ideologies and institutions of power? How have governments used music to build national solidarity, and how have activists used it to incite change? How can we relate these phenomena to our own experiences with music in daily life? We will explore answers to these questions through historical and ethnographic literatures and learn about the diverse settings in which music and politics intersect. The course presents some theoretical foundations of music, self, and society and then examines music and politics in specific contexts. Class sessions will explore topics such as American spirituals during slavery and emancipation, the Communist revolution and the institutionalization of musical ideology in China, Islamic political movements in Iran, and the role of music and sound in the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. We will learn the many ways music becomes a resource for modeling the kind of social and political transformations that people hope to create in their communities or nations. For example, we will observe governments’ and citizens’ musical appropriations and reappropriations, and we will trace the ways in which groups often claim and adapt a single musical genre to differing ends. Throughout the course, we will listen to and discuss numerous musical examples and gain familiarity with the musical genres that we study. Class sessions will be devoted to discussing readings from a wide range of fields, including ethnomusicology, anthropology, history, and sociology.
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Playing What You Feel: Ethnomusicology and Musical Improvisation

Open , Seminar—Spring

No prior experience in music is necessary. This seminar may be taken for either humanities or social science credits. It also may be taken as a semester-long component.

Talking to each other. Taking liberties. Using your freedom of expression. Often described as a conversation, musical improvisation can be a highly interactive and expressive form of music making. But rather than the popular conception of merely making it up as you go along, improvisation is actually a complex social and musical practice that requires a series of contextualized choices. These choices are shaped by both social and sonic expectations, making musical improvisation a unique entry point to learn about how music is integrated into the culture of everyday life. This seminar will focus on a wide range of contexts where musical improvisation is practiced and made meaningful. We will learn to hear and understand an array of specific improvisational choices, as musicians from different backgrounds progress through musical time. We will explore the kinds of values and beliefs that people associate with improvisation and learn how certain communities unite around the practice of improvisation. We will use musical improvisation to explore how sound complements textual theories of the individual and society. And we will examine the similarities and differences of theories and practices of improvisation around the world with a cross-cultural perspective, exploring themes such as ethnicity, race, nation, class, gender, sexuality, social justice, freedom, community, free will, and determinism. Using ethnomusicology’s interdisciplinary approach to learning about music and culture, this seminar will draw from anthropology, linguistics, social theory, sociology, psychology, and artists’ personal accounts. Class session topics will include music in Turkey, Egypt, West Africa, India, Cantonese opera, 20th-century experimental art music, improvised singing games in Nepal and among African American girls, free improvisation, international and domestic jazz, and turntabling and DJing.

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Playing What You Feel: Ethnomusicology and Musical Improvisation

Component—Spring

See course description under Lectures and Seminar.

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Transformation Sounds! Ethnomusicology and Social Change

Open , Seminar—Fall

See course description under Lectures and Seminar.

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Solkattu Ensemble

Component—Fall

No prior experience in music is necessary. Students with no musical background and musicians specializing in any instrument will benefit from the ensemble—all are welcome.

Solkattu is the practice of spoken rhythmic syllables that constitute the rhythmic basis of many forms of Indian music. Indian percussionists, vocalists, melodic instrumentalists, and dancers use solkattu to communicate with each other in order to understand the rhythmic logic of Indian music. In this ensemble, students will develop individualized rhythmic precision and physical confidence, as well as group solidarity, through the practiced coordination of reciting patterns of syllables while clapping an independent rhythmic cycle. Using the voice and hands, students will internalize rhythmic relationships through physical embodiment by moving to progressively more complex rhythmic patterns and rhythmic cycles.

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Art and Pop, Culture and Nature: Ethnomusicology and Global Musical Ecologies

Component

Participation in the West African percussion ensemble is encouraged but not required for the spring semester. No prior musical experience is necessary.

Note: This course may also be taken as a yearlong component.

How is listening a way of knowing? This course uses the idea of musical ecologies to approach music as a way of understanding both people and their surroundings. We will examine how music makes the relationships between people and their environments audible by listening to music and hearing gender, race, class, identity, generational difference, nationalism, nature, and place. By encountering musical diversity through listening and reading materials, as well as through performance ensembles, students will develop the critical thinking skills to make connections between the sonic and textual and better understand the many ways in which music and sound are meaningful around the world. The fall semester will focus on how music sounds the relationships between people, using selected ethnographic examples of art and popular music from across Asia and the Middle East. Topics will include Balinese gamelan, South Indian classical music, Taiko, Southeast Asian Heavy Metal, Iranian Pop, Japanese Hip Hop, Bollywood, World Jazz, Noise, and K Pop. Themes such as transnational circulation, cultural imperialism, and sound reproduction technology—including the radio, LP, mp3, and Internet—will be considered. Participation in the Balinese Gamelan, a bronze percussion orchestra, is required for the fall semester. The spring semester will delve further into the idea of musical ecologies by exploring intersections of music, culture, and nature. Themes will include music vs. sound, acoustic ecology, environmental activism, and the cultural construction of nature. Class sessions will focus on Appalachian coal mining songs, indigenous and folk music from Eastern Europe and the Arctic, art music composition, soundscapes, field recordings, birdsong, and musical responses to environmental crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan.

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Related Disciplines

Art and Pop, Culture and Nature: Ethnomusicology and Global Musical Ecologies

Component

See course description under SEMINAR (above).

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Gamelan Angklung Chandra Buana

Component—Fall

Any interested student may join; no previous experience with music is necessary. It is a required part of the Art and Pop, Culture and Nature: Ethnomusicology and Global Musical Ecologies seminar.

A gamelan angklung is a bronze orchestra that includes four-toned metallophones, gongs, drums, and flutes. Simple patterns played upon the instruments interlock and combine to form large structures of great complexity and beauty. The gamelan angklung that we will play was specially handcrafted in Bali for the College and was named Chandra Buana, or “Moon Earth,” at its dedication on April 16, 2000, in Reisinger Concert Hall.

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