Statement of Michael Spitzer for Ethnomusicology debate

Following my earlier posts on the ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’ debate (see here and here), here, reproduced with permission, is the statement from Michael Spitzer given in the debate.I will be posting my own response to the statement by Laudan Nooshin (which can be read here), together with some ethnographically sourced views from musicologists and students on their experience of ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists.


Michael Spitzer

I’d like to pull out three strands from Nicholas Cook’s rich and though-provoking article – a thought-piece I mostly agree with, except to suggest that Cook may have been too optimistic. What I mean by ‘too optimistic’ I’ll get to after I try to clarify these three strands.

The first point to make is that the term ‘ethnomusicology’ ought to be distinguished from ethnography. We see ethnographic methods usefully applied to all walks of scholarship in Western music, including music in everyday life, and music psychology. By contrast – and this claim doesn’t seem to be wildly out of line with the programmes of recent British Forum for Ethnomusicology Conferences – Ethnomusicology seems to throw its focus on world music.

The second point is that the analogy with historical musicology is limited. To be sure, ‘the past is another country’, and all that. But ethnographic research requires living respondents, and the people in the distant past are dead. The notion of hermeneutic ‘alterity’ is a fudge in this respect. I began my career as a Beethoven sketch scholar, and Beethoven isn’t around to explain his shocking handwriting; nor his choice of inks or the water-marks on his paper. Paleography, like forensic pathology, is the art of the silent witness. It’s also a highly technical discipline; and – in an economy of time-scarcity – every hour the medievalist or sketch scholar puts into reading Lacan or Bourdieu is one hour less to perfect their specialist craft.

My third and final point is that the ‘performative turn’ isn’t necessarily the best bridge between the two disciplines. Or rather, performativity isn’t the same thing as performance tout court. All scores address the implied performer, do they not? And the Kantians taught us that listening is a kind of internal, imaginative, performance, as we mentally track the dynamics and intensions of the music. The Dutch theorist Michael Schijer wrote provocatively that his experience teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatoire suggests that analysts can sometimes be more creatively performative than pianists who mechanically or unthinkingly reproduce the music.

All of which points to the so-called problem of the musical score being in fact a red herring. One field not mentioned in Cook’s article is popular-music analysis, since it came of age fairly recently. A common starting point for analysing popular song is that there often is no score; or rather, the analyst works with a transcription they have made themselves. And yet the ‘music itself’ is no less an object for reflection for the lack of an original score; it is a sonic conceptualisation (I am aware that a notion of ‘the music itself’ is hugely over-determined. In defense, I can point to Brian Kane’s recent book, Sound Unseen, which mounts an impressive recuperation of the ‘musical object’ on Husserlian transcendental grounds, indebted to Pierre Schaeffer’s typology of hearing types as well as to Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophy of listening). And it is this which brings me back to my opening claim that Cook was too optimistic. Why?

Cook’s ideal is laudable in principle, but in practice it hits the rocks of academic politics. In short, it is not a two-way street. On one side of the street, Musicology has been attacked for a generation for its apparently inadequate social and cultural mediation, and it has got its house in order. On the other side, I am not aware of many bullets shooting in the opposite direction; and yet the sniping against Musicology continues. Let me give two examples, one general, the other personal.

In 2013, Liverpool held an International Conference on Analysing Popular Music. The world’s main forum for popular-music scholarship is IASPM, yet many of the renowned visitors to our conference told me how difficult it is for them to get a friendly hearing at IASPM, an organization much more oriented towards ethnographic approaches. My personal example is a polemic aimed at me by David Hesmondhalgh in his recent book, Why Music Matters, where he accuses me of ‘formalism’ in my forays into analysing musical emotion. I answer Hesmondhalgh in an article coming out soon in the journal, Popular Music. All I will say here is that I hit the ball back over the net, and ask: what is so wrong with ‘formalism’? Don’t songs have form? Isn’t it useful, even enjoyable, to explore how an artist or composer crafts and finesses musical materials? More bluntly, how much do the critics of music analysis really understand what it involves?

So, in sum, I would set the disciplinary boundaries elsewhere. There are fine ethnomusicologists who effortlessly absorb and deploy analytical methods. Simon Mills, on rhythm in Korean folk-music; or Chloe Zadeh, on schemata in Indian classical improvisation, not to mention more senior figures such as Michael Tenzer, Richard Widdess, or Martin Clayton. Equally, most if not all Western musicologists are socially and culturally aware, whilst upholding the values of abstraction and, let us say it, ‘formalism’.

Rather, the real difference is – to borrow categories from game theory – between zero-sum games, and positive-sum games. In a zero-sum game, one side needs to lose for the other side to gain. In a positive-sum game, both sides win. Certainly, my experience of musicologists or music theorists is that they are happy to live and let live. But perhaps this is not always the case for ethnomusicologists or social scientists in their attitude towards musicologists.

Equally, I think there <are> differences, notwithstanding the absorption of music analysis and ethnography by both sides. You see that in our conference programmes. The spread of repertories in an ethno conference is extremely diverse, whereas most delegates at an RMA meeting will know their Schubert or Debussy. In musicology, this experience of commonality is an invaluable basis for intersubjective discussion and methodological progress. Stepping gingerly, and at the risk of over-simplification, I suggest that the pattern of consensus in an ethno meeting is reversed: people may agree more on theory and method, the repertories tending to be mutually unfamiliar. And that is perfectly fine. It is a difference worth preserving, as its dynamic will help keep music studies as a whole moving and developing. But, to repeat, this will only happen if both sides respect each other in a live-and-let-live culture. And, at the moment, I see this respect as rather one-sided.


5 Comments on “Statement of Michael Spitzer for Ethnomusicology debate”

  1. […] responses to the event, and also to the position statement by Laudan Nooshin [ADDENDUM: see also the position statement by Michael Spitzer). I will post a more detailed reply to this latter soon, believing it to be disingenuous in […]

  2. […] The text and powerpoint slides used by Nooshin for this event can be viewed here. This statement contains the outlines of arguments I will be pursuing in more detail, with full references, in a forthcoming article. The filmed debate will be made available online soon, and furthermore some accounts and responses to it will also be going online at the Music at City blog. [EDIT: These are now online here. Furthermore, Michael Spitzer’s statement can be viewed here] […]

  3. […] Statement of Michael Spitzer for Ethnomusicology debate (12/8/16) […]

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