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  • Cuban Flute Style: Interpretation and Improvisation by Sue Miller
  • Sunni Witmer
Sue Miller. Cuban Flute Style: Interpretation and Improvisation. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2014. 356pp. ISBN: 9780810884410.

In his seminal work The Anthropology of Music, ethnomusicologist Alan P. Merriam (1964) posited that any true analysis of music in culture should include three analytical levels: music as sound, music as behavior, and music as idea (i.e., the theoretical). This approach has had lasting and influential relevance, especially regarding the importance of behavioral and theoretical analysis. Even a cursory review of post-1960s [End Page 125] ethnomusicological literature will show that most research places a focus on the theoretical, with supplemental analysis of the music, as sound, used to support social and theoretical constructs. Publications of full, in-depth analyses of performance practices and instrumental performance techniques are less prevalent. Sue Miller’s work on the Cuban musical tradition known as charanga, and its emphasis on flute virtuosity, is a welcome addition to the shorter list of published research done on what Ki Mantle Hood (1960) called bimusicality.

In ethnomusicological research the reasons more emphasis, as well as credibility, has been placed on theoretical analysis are varied, but perhaps most important, because some early ethnomusicologists felt that “bi-musicality was too subjective, too self-indulgent, too unscholarly, too unscientific, too much fun, [and] too much like the music-ed business (what the late Alan Merriam at Indiana called ‘sandbox ethnomusicology’)” (Titon, 1995, 289). Miller’s research defies this notion and shows that in-depth, detailed, and thorough transcription and analysis of music as sound, combined with an emic command of performance practices, is as valid a contribution to our understanding of any musical experience as the intellectualization of it.

In many ways, Miller’s approach is typical of current research. Her work focuses primarily on the research and analysis of the Cuban charanga style of flute playing and, by extension, charanga music in general. Her analysis of charanga was undertaken from two perspectives: traditional harmonic and thematic analysis, and a hermeneutic analysis underscored by the work of Henry Louis Gates and Samuel Floyd. The theoretical perspectives gained from Gates and Floyd are then used to analyze charanga music using an Afro-Cuban frame of reference. Her theoretical ties to signifyin’ and Afro-Cuban conventions are solid, but were they necessary? Miller’s emic understanding of Cuban musical sensibilities was perhaps enough. Her research is not only intellectual but also experientially integrated.

Cuban charanga—a term that describes both a popular Cuban musical ensemble and the musical genres it performs—is a historically complicated phenomenon. The instrumentation of the ensemble varies but is typically “led” by the flute, and the music comprises both composed and improvised music. By analyzing the charanga flute’s improvisatory techniques, Miller provides a better understanding of the music of charanga and of Cuban musical sensibilities in general. This is an important contribution not only to Cuban music but to the study of twentieth-century improvisation as well. Through charanga, Miller makes a compelling case for the idea that composition and improvisation are inextricably linked and that improvisation is not just composition’s “other.” Interpretation, as the subtitle of the book implies, is the left hand to improvisation’s right. While [End Page 126] those two practices are seemingly discrete, Miller shows that interpretation lies at one end of the creative continuum, explaining how interpretation provides the internal structure for improvisation.

Miller dedicates three chapters of the book to describing and illustrating the different styles of improvisation used in charanga. The book includes a large number of very well notated musical examples, complete with written instructions for performance. Supplementing Miller’s analysis of the charanga style is a chapter on mastering flute technique. Charanga flutists historically used the French baroque five-key wooden flute to play charanga. In the twentieth century, they began to also incorporate the modern silver Boehm-system flute into the charanga ensemble. For the wooden flute, Miller provides photos, illustrations of the components of the instrument, and two fingering charts.

To better inform her research, Miller formed her own charanga ensemble, Charanga del Norte. She recorded two albums, both of which were...


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