A Dearth of Camels

I’m struggling to come up with an idea for a micro-composition today. I have a few tricks I can use to just generate raw material, but that is unsatisfying. I used them in earlier sketches that I don’t even want to copy, so obviously I reject this material. I think one problem is that I keep feeling like I have to generate traditional musical material. This is just not my idiom. Maybe I’m having trouble with this piece because I have a sense that I need to write something traditional.

Maybe this is just baggage that I have to lose. This notion that I have to write really traditional material is based on the notion that I have to write from the perspective of the dominant culture. One thing that bothered me in graduate school was people constantly telling me that I needed to do loads of research to understand my culture–by which they meant their culture. If it were my culture, I wouldn’t need to be playing a game of catch up, would I?

At my first composition jury, one of the faculty went on at great length about camels. He thought that if you take a picture of a pyramid, you should always put a camel in it to have a sense of scale. I was doing something horribly wrong by not having the musical analog of camels in my composition. I think this is where the sense that I need to have traditional source material for this piece comes from.

Sphynx et la grande pyramide. Digital ID: 88428. New York Public LibraryThe presumption that the camel is necessary is deeply problematic. Maybe a camel helps create a sense of scale for someone who has never seen a pyramid. But if I’m from Giza, the camel is really unnecessary. I’d already know how big a pyramid is. I shouldn’t have to go find some guy with livestock just to properly take a picture that counts as complete. And why is someone who doesn’t know anything about pyramids the arbiter of what counts as a proper pyramid picture?

If I’m an Egyptian who is particularly interested in figures and animals, maybe a camel has a place in some of my pictures. And sure, I’ll throw in camels (and any other exoticism that I think will sell) if I’m making postcards for tourists. But if I’m an Egyptian who is interested in any other kind of art, there is no reason to suppose that camels have to be in any of my pictures. A dearth of camels is not a sign of bad craftsmanship. That would be a bizarre double standard given that no one expects livestock to be in pictures of European monuments. Pictures of Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower tend to be pretty cow-free.

Every time I end up with a piece of music I’m especially proud of, it doesn’t try to squeeze into the mold of some aspect of dominant culture that I approach as an outsider. Sure, I have a couple of pieces of traditional music that I’m happy with. But by and large, I think I need to stop approaching every composition with this weird baggage of trying to write outside of my idiom.


For what it’s worth, a Google image search at the time of writing revealed no livestock on the first page of Google hits for Stonehenge or the Eiffel Tower. There were a few pictures of pyramids with camels and horses, but it seems that this composition faculty member has a serious misconception about camels in pyramid pictures. I feel somewhat vindicated to find that pyramid photographers don’t seem to feel that camels are necessary either.

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