Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 2. Papers of Darla Crispin and Peter Tregear.Posted: October 31, 2019
In my earlier post, I detailed the contents of first two papers at the important and well-attended session at the Royal Musical Association Annual Conference 2019 by Larson Powell and Darla Crispin. Here I will do the same with the third and fourth papers by Darla Crispin and Peter Tregear, and then append some wider thoughts of my own on the occasion.
Darla M. Crispin, ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’
Crispin’s paper focused on fundamental questions appertaining to the field of artistic research and the ways in which work in this field might be judged. She began by offering four fundamental questions:
- How do we measure value in artistic research?
- Have we really resolved how to do so in the separate cases of art and research?
- Can artistic research offer fresh insights into our value systems for the separate worlds of art and scholarship, as well as its own hybrid world, or will its influence contribute to a free-for-all situation where all value is subjective?
- Perhaps most fundamentally, how is artistic research in music to develop a more trenchant self-criticism, as the field moves toward maturity?
None of these are easy questions; Anglophone academics may be familiar with particular manifestations thereof in the debates about practice-as-research. Artistic research is a distinct concept, however, which has not yet gained the same currency in English-speaking academia as in parts of continental Europe. Fundamentally, this entails research into artistic practice, carried out by active practitioners, but generally presented in a written form (so the practice itself does not constitute the final output). Crispin argued that this paradigm ‘is more one of a fusion of artistic practice and research, leading to a third entity‘, in comparison to the UK model in which ‘the research retains its distinct identity as research‘ despite operating through the medium of practice, drawing upon concepts from Christopher Frayling’s influential essay 1993 essay ‘Research in art and design’.
Crispin, who has worked extensively at the centre of artistic research programmes in Ghent and Oslo, described how, when the field of artistic research was new, many sought a workable definition such as would facilitate the development of new work methods, courses and programmes and associated curricula, and could be used to validate new advanced degrees, in particular the PhD in artistic research. However, the co-existence of both the UK and continental models has created further complications and controversies, one response to which was the following 2015 statement from the Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen (AEC):
‘Artistic Research shares with other research focussing its study on the arts the aim of promoting the understanding, and thereby the development, of artistic practice; however, it is distinctive in the emphasis it places upon the integral role of the artist in its research processes. Artistic practice is the source from which it draws its questions and also the target towards which it addresses its answers.’
But, as Crispin observed, this statement, attempting to satisfy multiple factions, is ultimately rather bland, and stronger choices need to be made, not least with respect to the thorny question of value of such research. The complexities of the issues has resulted in a relative slow pace of development of a critical framework which, Crispin maintained, requires something ‘couched in terms of words’. Those who believe that the research element is located in the art itself (I am one of those who believe it can be) must look for a critical framework in non-verbal terms, and so existing scholarly concepts of critically need to be rethought.
Crispin alluded to the classic ‘holy trinity’ (my term rather than hers) of criteria for scholarship and research: originality – rigour – significance. The most problematic of these for many existing forms of artistic creation is rigour, and so Crispin asked how artistic self-reflexivity might be rethought as conducive to such rigour, rather than antithetical to it, not least through a reappraisal of traditional scholarly distrust of subjectivity. With this in mind, she produced the following chart:
Very loosely, Crispin asked whether the left hand column tended to represent ‘Art’, the right hand one ‘Research’? But she refined this so that items 1-3 and 5 in the left hand column, and 1-2 in the right hand one could be considered ‘Art & Research’, No. 4 in the left possibly ‘Art only’ and the remaining 3-5 in the right possibly ‘Research only’. I am less convinced that No. 3 of the latter is so far from a good deal of artistic creation, whether the contrast between the first items in either column really amount to more than a caricature of either field, or whether No. 2 in the left amounts to more than romantic mythologisation of the artistic process, and so on, but sometimes stark contrasts between polarised conceptions can be useful in order to dramatise fundamental issues. The chart certainly speaks to me in terms of (sometimes reified) conceptions I have encountered, as for example when I was once told by a senior academic that the real criterion for scholarship is that it is ‘objective’, as if this were such a clear-cut thing (this was from an individual working in a field which in general is characterised by a good deal of speculative hermeneutics, and relatively unsubstantiated assertions). Ultimately, the right hand column says more about what those who police scholarship use as criteria for dismissing it rather than revealing much about what actually constitutes the richest work.
Crispin argued that there was a requirement for ‘the further development of clear methodological frameworks within which subjective enquiry can be carried out’ (I could not agree more and would add that all types of research, not just ‘artistic’, need these). She presented an interesting and productive dichotomy between ‘untrained subjectivity’ and ‘expert subjectivity’, recognising that subjective reflection can nonetheless reflect wider expertise and training.
There are major implications, however, for the manifestations of such considerations in terms of the possibilities of healthy and robust academic debate. To embrace subjectivity means, according to Crispin, ‘to narrow the distance between what one says and who one is’. This brings with it major dangers, whereby the distinction between a legitimate scholarly critique and a personalised attack becomes unclear. I have noticed how many who insist on dramatising their subjective presence in their work – including those who preface every paper with some ‘statement of positionality’ or the like – are quick to use the fact of this blurring of boundaries to avoid actually engaging with the substance of a critique and simply cry foul.* Crispin noted the relative lack of ‘the internal cut-and-thrust of polemical debate’ within artistic research, and called for more informed criticism, which can only come from peers.
Is this likely to happen? Crispin did not answer this wholly unequivocally: she noted how artistic research has been as likely to absorb the worst as the best aspects of more long-established disciplines, but had the potential to shape itself as an arena for addressing fundamental questions of art, and could reach out to wider musical or music-making communities as a result. These are strong ideals, though there is a long way to go. A tendency on the part of some artistic researchers to pepper their writings with the maximum number of references to jargon taken from various vogueish intellectuals (at present, Alain Badiou and Bruno Latour are very much in fashion), not always in order either to clarify arguments, nor situate them meaningfully within a wider theoretical context, but simply to add a ‘scholarly’ aura often to writings in which the findings relating to artistic practice are relatively modest, hardly encourages engagement with such texts on the part of wider communities of musicians.
But artistic researchers depend primarily for their existence on winning favour and prestige within narrow academic communities, and convincing sceptics (sometimes including university bureaucrats with little investment in artistic disciplines at all) that they deserve recognition comparable to their colleagues in STEM and other fields. Crispin’s clear-sighted awareness of these continuing problems was made manifest in her final quote, from Elin Angelo; Øyvind Varkøy and Eva Georgii-Hemming, ‘Notions of Mandate, Knowledge and Research in Norwegian Classical Music Performance Studies’, Journal for Research in Arts and Sports Education Vol. 3, No. 1 (2019), pp. 78–100:
‘Overall, attitudes, hierarchies, positions, disciplines and profiles in performing programmes seem to be challenged by academisation processes. This could be met by maintaining silence, or also by the will and interest to communicate and actively participate in dialogues. ‘Publish or perish’ is a bad ideal for higher music education, unless one redefines what is meant by ‘publish’. Unless classical performers engage in (verbal) discussions about who their peers should be and what norms classical music educators should follow, and why, then these judgments will be left to non-musicians.
A final conclusion in this article is, therefore, speak! Who is better qualified to say something about mandate, knowledge and research in and for higher music education than higher music educators themselves (teachers/leaders/researchers/students)? Only by verbalising the challenges, inviting dialogue and questioning of the qualifications (or the lack thereof), might one facilitate the academisation processes to work for and not against higher music education.’
However, there is still a fair way to go in terms of combating anti-intellectualism on the part of many practical musicians (and indeed, some of the academics who idolise them) and the converse tendency of musicologists to pass judgement on musicians and others involved in the music business, but assume that no-one other than other academics are entitled to any judgement on them and their own work.
* A particularly egregious example of this was a comment from Georgina Born in a 2016 debate on music technology at my own institution, in which she insisted the critique by Björn Heile, in his 2004 essay ‘Darmstadt as Other: British and American Responses to Musical Modernism’ of her deeply problematic neo-liberal polemic Rationalising Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Insitutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde, could only be motivated by sexism. This article contained what was actually a relatively moderate critique on Heile’s part, focusing primarily on the fact that Born arrives at over-arching judgements on a whole body of musical work on the basis of reading associated statements rather than independent engagement with the sounding work.
Peter Tregear, ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.
Perhaps the most hard-hitting and cogent paper in the session was the final one, by Peter Tregear, looking at fundamental questions of the role of empirical truth in musicology in the light of recent polemics. Tregear kindly provided me with an earlier, longer draft of his paper (which is currently under review for a special issue of Twentieth- Century Music edited by Wolfgang Marx, entitled ‘Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth’, for publication in 2020) with important material I would like to reproduce here.
In this, Tregear recognised that the types of fact-finding and testing of propositions undertaken by musicologists are of a different nature to those of empirical scientists, while the traditionally important role of the untestable factor of aesthetic judgement takes the discipline away from empirical truth. However, he noted the now-familiar fact that ‘fake news’ and disinformation have come to undermine scientific findings when they better suit particular individual values or political agendas, and that a similar phenomenon is occurring in musicology:
‘It used to be considered a given of scholarly practice that when a musicologist proposed an idea it would be assessed primarily on the basis of the cogency, originality and rigour of the arguments that support it. The broader community of scholars would then assess the underlying validity of an argument by scrutinising both its inherent reasoning and by comparing it against a body of pre-existing knowledge. To this end, musicological discourse has traditionally held itself to account in ways comparable to scientific practice despite the fact that the musicologist does not only deal with empirical facts. However, with theoretical buttressing from ideas such as postmodernism and deconstructionism, it is possible at the same time to profess a profound scepticism of the very idea of truth in scholarship.’
Examples of this given by Tregear include the way in which even to make reference to immanent musical qualities is frequently interpreted as an expression of social biases on the part of the musicologist (Tregear alluded to Pierre Bourdieu, but this position reminds me more of the various Soviet strictures on ‘formalism’ in music, culminating in the 1948 Zhdanov decree), or that all choices of areas of research and teaching are portrayed merely as a means for particular social forces to exercise and protect their power. Tregear recognised positive dimensions to this, in terms of the potential to engender proper debates about musical value, but also pointed out that this requires levels of intellectual rigour and breadth of perspective such as would enable ‘specifically musicological interests and concerts’ to rise above ‘the general din of today’s opinion-saturated, post-truth culture’. He noted the difficulties of this in a culture which distrusts ‘experts’, as diagnosed in such books as Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008), Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and others. With this comes a situation in which sustained thought is overshadowed by comment, opinion, and ironic refusals to commit to anything, and culture becomes, in the words of political scientist Patrick Deenen, ‘synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promotion consumption, appetite, and detachment’.
Such a situation both threatens and conditions musicology in particular ways, according to Tregear. His diagnosis of particular outcomes included ‘The elevation of feeling over thinking‘, especially in autoethnographic writing (the subject of a further round-table in which I participated later the same day). Quoting Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis (from the introduction to their Making Autoethnography Sing/Making Music Personal (Bowen Hills: Australian Academic Press, 2009)) on how autoethnography supposedly encourages the conveying of ‘the meanings of vibrant musical experiences evocatively’ rather than ‘dry descriptions’, Treager echoed some of Crispin’s comments about the dangers of over-elevation of subjective experience per se, in his observation that ‘It quickly becomes more important to declare how one feels, than to show why one thinsk something, about a musical proposition or musical work.’ All that really matters is the ‘authenticity’ of one’s personal experiences, and there is less incentive for musicologists to look beyond the limits of these (one might add that this sort of academic narcissism is the very converse of the type of multi-perspectival approach which is surely a necessary condition for any meaningful commitment to diversity). All that remains is personal taste, and any conflicts in this respect can be about to little more than the manifestation of institutional power structures. Any possibility of generating some larger communal identity for the purposes of solidarity is lost behind ‘a cloud of authorial subjectivities’.
Especially perceptive was Tregear’s concomitant observation that when the self is everything, then this leads to a devaluing and deskilling of music teaching and scholarship, the disappearance of any type of critical consensus for the evaluation of work, and of knowledge systems such as those provided by music theory and historical narratives. Even peer review becomes relatively meaningless. The situation he describes is depressingly familiar, though many of the claims made about power structures seem to little bother some of their strongest advocates when it comes to their own positions within such structures, and claims to expertise (I was reminded of the furious reactions on social media to the semi-serious conclusion to my contribution to the 2016 debate ‘Are we all ethnomusicologists now?’)** Tregear was adamant of the vital role of universities in bolstering and defending ‘the possibility of objective truth’ (though it was clear this was conceived in a more contingent manner than that to which I alluded earlier), promoting and disseminating public knowledge rather than merely lived experience.
The second aspect of Tregear’s diagnosis, ‘An increasing aversion to the principles of scholarly writing‘, brought in the principal object of his critique, the book Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016) (available to read in full online for free here), essentially an attack on the bulk of musicological writing. Cheng is a one-time pianist who now primarily writes ludomusicology (the study of music for video games). I will return to Tregear’s critique of Just Vibrations presently. Tregear cited as one sign of the breakdown of the scholarly values in musicology was the growth in APA (‘Harvard style’) referencing , enabling academics to present ideas as if they were established facts, in the manner of scientific discoveries (I have noticed how often Edward Said’s highly contentious and widely contested arguments, especially in Orientalism, are regularly used by new musicologists and ethnomusicologists in this respect – ‘We know (Said 1978) that Western writers portray the ‘Orient’ in order to exercise their power and domination over colonial subjects’, etc.). Tregear noted an acerbic critique of this from Russell Smith (‘Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research’, The Globe and Mail, 31 October 2017).
The third point of Tregear’s critique was ‘An over concern for utility‘, whereby musicologists are instructed by Cheng to direct their work towards specific social goals or goods (a simple rehash of very old utilitarian arguments which have traditionally been used to undermine academic autonomy, or those in music from the advocates of Gebrauchsmusik, and then the similar doctrines as enforced in fascist and communist regimes). Tregear asked who should determine what the appropriate types of goals or good should be, and continued (in a somewhat Adornian fashion) to note how this approach could not but help but shut out any sort of reasoned dissent. Cheng’s prognosis would lead to the situation in which institutions commission academics to write supposedly authoritative scholarly histories of themselves, but with the clear understanding that these must not highlight some of such institutions’ more unsavoury elements (this has been a major consideration in ‘official’ histories of institutions in post-1945 Germany which were also active prior to 1945, or in musical institutions with dark histories of abuse and bullying, all of who require Persilschein).
Following this, Tregear alluded briefly to the ‘grievance studies hoax’ carried out Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, in which seven fabricated papers (one of them a rewriting of a chapter from Mein Kampf) were accepted by major academic journals. Tregear suggested that this happened primarily because such papers appealed to a sense of righteousness, and particular identity groups, and this type of authority took priority over any other form of reasoning or observation. Personal biases, once viewed as something to guard against and if necessary correct, have become a reigning scholarly principle. With the eschewal of any attempt at disinterest, what remains, according to Tregear, is what literary scholar David Palumbo-Lui calls (in the context of modern languages) ‘a morbid constellation of egotism, arrogance, self-enclosure, and normalized self-interest’, and also, as identified by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, limited skills encountered in students in terms of analytical thought, reasoning and written expression. This situation will surely be familiar to many, and is sometimes replicated and perpetuated by other academics who were themselves schooled in institutions which devalued these types of qualities.
In the version of the paper presented at the RMA, Tregear began by paying tribute to Tamara Levitz’s keynote lecture the previous day, ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom’ and her worries about the ‘implications for musicology of the age of democracy’s demise’, feeling his own work dealt with similar themes. Then he moved straight to Cheng’s book, placing this in the context of ‘a renewed identity crisis in musicology’, and noting Cheng’s claim the discipline might ‘renegotiate the means and purposes of careful labor, intellectual inquiry, and living soundly’. Tregear noted the primarily favourable reception this book has received, even in a mildly critical review-article by Kate Guthrie (‘Why we Can’t All Just Get Along’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 143 (2018), pp. 473-482), and attributed its impact to a variety of factors: the authors association with influential US professional musicological networks, the decision of the publishers to make it available to read for free online, but also ‘its self-declared progressive and confessional style’, leading it to win the Philip Brett Award of the American Musicological Society in 2016.***
To Tregear, Cheng’s book, while rightly encouraging a broader consideration of what and who musicology is for, also ‘gives us a clear warning as to what is also now at stake’. Some of this was simply through over-reaching, as in the exaggerated claim that a ‘musicological ear’ could add depth to the analysis of the use of a siren sound to close a TV episode. But Tregear was also sceptical of Cheng’s definition of musicology as ‘all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicological community…’, believing that this makes the crisis of identity in musicology all the more acute.
Tregear did not deny the value of musicology which entailed advocacy, and noted how this was unavoidable in his own work on music history in Weimar Germany. At the same time, he recognised that his own training led him to attempt to identify particularly bias, and how this might distort research (and, by implication, one should try to correct this). He cited American Social Psychologist Lee Jussim and others’ pertinent observations on how when we are ‘motivated by high moral principles, such as combating global warming, or advancing egalitarianism, such motivations may lead to practices that threaten [research] integrity.’ (Lee Jussim, Jarret T. Crawford, Sean T. Stevens, Stephanie M. Anglin, and Jose L. Duarte, ‘Can High Moral Purposes Undermine Scientific Integrity?’, in The Social Psychology of Morality eds. Joseph P. Forgas, Lee Jussim, Paul A.M. Van Lange (London: Routledge, 2016), 190). Ultimately, Tregear believed that the scholarly nature of musicological research is the source of its ethical import, the detachment this requires making it possible to relate findings to the work of other scholars, wider bodies of knowledge, and society-at-large.
But in contrast to this, Cheng’s view is that most of the traditions of scholarly writing are simply designed to ‘impress people, win arguments, and elevate one’s status’, drawing upon the concept of ‘paranoid reading’ from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in her Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), an arch-example of the sort of tendencies identified in the longer version of Tregear’s paper). Against Cheng’s dismissive evocation of how musicologists are ‘trained to write in a manner that preemptively repels potential knocks against their work’, Tregear asked whether this wasn’t the precise thing which enables good academic writing ‘to justify its claim to be taken seriously as a public utterance’, rather than ‘a mere assertion of the taste, desires, beliefs, or caprice of the researcher’. The musicologist generates trust from their reader by justifying their claims on the basis of reasoned propositions or facts.
Cheng writes disparagingly about ‘aesthetic autonomy’, ‘academic freedom’, recommendations of ‘Let music be music’ or ‘Let scholars be scholars’, which all allegedly displace attention ‘from the role musicologists ought to be playing as “care givers and social agents”‘. I see no place for scholarly values of any type here, only political judgement on the part of Cheng (one wonders why he is particularly concerned about owning a university position, rather than working as a political activist?) Tregear presented the danger of a priori political values overriding other scholarly ones through the 2000 libel case launched by writer and holocaust denier David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. In the words of chief expert witnesses, Professor Richard J. Evans (whose expert report can be read here, an essential read for all concerned about questions of historical truth; a shorter version is to be found in Evans’ book Telling Lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, Hitler and the David Irving Trial (London: Verso, 2002)), the trial was about the ‘very creation of historical knowledge from the remains the past has left behind’. Whereas earlier commentators had often sought to dismiss Irving’s work on the basis of his politics, and others of a mainstream conservative position but little specific expertise in his area had erred to believing it had some historical value despite the politics, Evans’ approach to the texts was relentlessly forensic, involving fact-checking and various other types of scrutiny, revealing how Irving distorted sources, ignored them when they did not suit his purposes, read them deliberately out of context, or applied wildly different standards to different types of sources, for example requiring the highest standards of corroboration for anything said by Churchill, while taking Hitler’s words at face value. As Tregear put it, Evans was able to defeat Irving’s misreadings of the past (and his investigation has probably done far more to discredit Irving’s propaganda than anyone else had managed) ‘by being – indeed – rigorously paranoid‘.
Tregear charged that Cheng’s demands can lead to scholarly outcomes which are neither progressive nor innovative, because the lack of the traditional disciplinary tools and types of discourse undermine the rhetorical and moral authority of musicology (I suspect one reason Cheng is unable to see this has much to do with a in-group, out-group attitude which precludes any real constructive debate with anyone who does not already agree with him on the matters he believes to be important). Furthermore, when ‘research’ becomes overtly about advocacy, the systems of disciplinary accountability and peer review become relatively meaningless, and the result truly would be ‘a jostling for power and patronage’.
With this in mind, Tregear argued that musicology also needs ‘to undertake a serious system examination of the impact on musicology itself of the changing institutional context in which scholars like Cheng are flourishing’. He noted the damning findings of a 2017 University and College Union (UK) report (‘Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context’) that despite the purported norms of academic freedom, the commonplace reality is one of ‘bullying, psychological pressure and self-censorship’, with university managements employing administrative tools, metrics, research exercises, student evaluations, and so on. The claim that empowering students to make consumer choices would, according to the UK Department of Education, ‘shine a light on poor quality teaching and ensure standards are driven upwards’ leads to the situation, as diagnosed by Nichols, by which ‘the layperson becomes accustomed to judging the expert’. Managers and administrators now call the shots, and require loyalty to them (and, I would add, often the uncollegiate requirement of loyalty to a specific institution and its own staff over and above any working elsewhere) over any loyalty to values immanent to a particular discipline. The following quote from Nichols, cited by Tregear in the longer version of his paper, is especially pertinent:
‘Emotion is an unassailable defence against expertise, a moat of anger and resentment in which reason and knowledge quickly drown. And when students learn that emotion trumps everything else, it is a lesson they will take with them for the rest of their lives.’
The important conclusion derived from this by Tregear in the longer paper is of an unholy alliance between ‘self-oriented’ scholarship, and the demands of managerial cultures in universities, citing the following chart from Marc A. Edwards and Siddharta Roy (in ‘Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition’, Environmental Engineering Science, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017), pp. 51-61), demonstrating the pervasiveness of corporate language and values:
Tregear recognises that academic and institutional autonomy have never been, and likely would never be, completely pure and unmediated concepts, and also that disciplinary standards change over time, sometimes radically, but the nature of the types of change he was describing, as spearheaded by Cheng and others, have little to do with the very nature or requirements of the discipline of musicology. He attributed this to the failure of music academics to hold their own administrative leaderships to any kind of account (in fairness, I would say that many such academics are struggling with precarity and fear of losing their positions, and so are forced to operate in a dog-eat-dog academic climate of fear, though Tregear does allude to this), and the removal of democratic structures such as used to allow academics to elect their own Vice-Chancellors. In this sense, I would argue that Cheng and others are essentially providing a new spin upon corporate academic ideals. It is no coincidence that such a view finds most currency in the USA, where the corporatisation of academia may me more advanced than anywhere else in the Western world.
In conclusion, Tregear maintained the view that universities and disciplines such as musicology can still teach a capacity to make ‘rigorous, sustained, reflective, truth claims’, while recognising that he belongs to a group that have traditionally been the chief subjects and beneficiaries of such a thing, and also that the traditional tools of scholarship do not guarantee that the findings will transcend limitations of class, ethnic origin, or other identity groups. Nonetheless, he still argued that one should attempt to think beyond particular allegiances and identities, and institutions should seek to bolster and defend rational enquiry and the possibility of objective truth rather than narrow forms of knowing which rely primarily upon lived experience. Musicology is unlikely to effect serious social change, but can at least, according to Tregear, ‘help us develop and refine the kinds of thinking and hearing that can make us more valiant for the pursuit of truth’ in the world.
**This was the following:
‘I will end with a reapplication of Marcel Mauss to this field of ethnomusicology itself. Its participants offer up endorsements for the right theorists, the right canonised and revered ethnomusicologists, the right political outlook, generally that sort of ‘consumerist multiculturalism’ which accords well with modern neo-liberalism, to those who are in a position of power above them, and are rewarded for this through promotion and research grants in a process of exchange. Collegiate relationships within hierarchical academic structures are made possible through this process of reciprocity. This may be an unfair caricature, but no more so than many of the analyses in this body of work.’
It was not clear whether those ethnomusicologists fulminating about those on social media, often in an ad hominem manner, realised the point being made in re-applying the type of unsubstantiated allegations routinely made by them to other bodies of individuals to ethnomusicologists themselves.
***Philip Brett was another writer who wrote dismissively of musicology as being anything other than ‘cultural politics’, and the very concept of ‘scholarship’ (in ‘Round Table VIII: Cultural Politics’, Acta Musicologica, vol. 69, fasc. 1 (Jan-June 1997), pp. 45-52). He called musicology ‘not a happy word’ which ‘attempts to give a sort of academic legitimacy to an activity which goes on in most cultures – thinking, talking, and gossiping about music and judging it.’ (‘Are You Musical?’, The Musical Times, vol. 135, no. 1816 (June 1994), pp. 370-376). This may be an apt description of Brett’s own work, but not that of plenty of others, and I would find it difficult to set much scholarly value in a prize named after someone who did not believe in scholarship.
The questions demonstrated a clearly positive and supportive attitude towards the papers, perhaps with a greater degree of general consensus than many of us on the panel had imagined would be likely to be the case. Just one suggested that while it may be easy to present this type of ‘conservationist’ view at a conference like that, things might be different at that of the American Musicological Society (though the implication that this latter should be afforded some primacy needs questioning, unless one takes a Trumpian view of the axiomatic superior importance of anything taking place in the United States of America).
The then outgoing President of the Society for Music Analysis (trustees from which, of whom I am one, were well-represented amongst the audience for the session), Julian Horton, opined that ‘our discipline has lost its object’. Rebecca Herrisone, from the University of Manchester, asked the fair question of whether a simple need to gain and maintain students, in the face of an increasingly ruthless marketplace, might be driving deskilling. How departments can survive in such an academic climate, without joining in a ‘race to the bottom’, is one of the major challenges today, though ome can cynically appropriate this situation to legitimise the sorts of dumbing-down they desire anyhow (not that Herrisone was remotely doing this). Roddy Hawkins, also from the University of Manchester, asked a question to Moreda Rodriguez relating to research-led teaching, the exact details of which I do not recall precisely. Another individual who I did not know wondered whether a renewed emphasis on notation would risk centering ‘the canon’ again at the expense of other composers, though did not necessarily give a reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing.
Nicholas Reyland (RNCM) asked us all what we believed to be the major threat to music education. Some responses to this were a little muted, though Moreda Rodriguez made clear that she believed the main danger was the loss of any common ground, vocabulary and set of references with which musicologists could talk to each other. I myself opined at this point that to me the primary danger was that it would simply become subsumed within other disciplines and cease to exist in its own right, and that this was a danger of an excessive focus upon interdisciplinarity, in which music and musicology are invariably the junior partners.
One of the 2019 RMA keynote speakers, Tamara Levitz, was especially positive about the session, and mentioned some of her own strong reservations about the work of Cheng, which has had a relatively unquestioning acceptance in much of the US (and in many reviews in academic journals other than that of Peter Tregear). There was also a productive exchange between Levitz and Powell on the role of theory in teaching.
Knowing of Levitz’s own pathbreaking work on the teaching of Busoni and the ideas of the Junge Klassizität in early Weimar Germany, and also of the related work by others on the panel (Tregear and I have worked extensively on this area, while Powell and Crispin have written on composers active during this time, and Moreda Rodriguez’s work deals with a similar historical period) I raised the question of whether attacks in recent decades on musical autonomy are really so new, considering how widespread similar positions were in Weimar Germany (from Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Hans-Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Hanns Eisler, Heinrich Besseler and others, and fuelling the movements of Neue Sachlichkeit and Gebrauchsmusik). This generated further discussion which continued outside of the forum. There is always room for scepticism about any movements in academia, art or elsewhere which claim that their work constitutes a thoroughgoing break with practically all that has gone before, and makes claims for originality without necessarily sufficient historical knowledge to be in a position to make such claims, and the new musicology is no different in this respect.
Some Thoughts from the Session
As convenor and chair, I was extremely pleased with the session and the responses. Every speaker presented original, measured, but cogent arguments, unafraid to challenge some of the most malign tendencies in our discipline, even when propagated by individuals with significant institutional power. The seemingly less contentious thoughts of Crispin on subjectivity and the ways in which academics might engage with this while upholding scholarly values, took on a different flavour in contrast to the ideas of William Cheng as presented and critiqued by Tregear. Cheng’s position is not particularly new, just more explicit in its overt dismissal of scholarly truth than most of its postmodern predecessors. I take a somewhat more benevolent view towards the possibility of autoethnographic writing than Tregear, believing in the possibility of generating genuinely new knowledge through critical self-reflection on one’s own work and experiences, but nonetheless certainly recognise the self-obsessed type of writing which he identifies as laying claim to this concept.
Moreda Rodriguez’s paper was also sharp in many of its findings, not least the extent to which some of those laying claim to the rhetoric of the ‘global’ continue, say, to identify the whole of the ‘Americas’ with the United States, thus perpetuating an arch-imperialist view. But her paper and Powell’s may have contained some of the most positive messages for ways forward, in her case recognising the value of attempts to draw the boundaries of music history more broadly than hitherto. But at the same time, she does not underestimate the scale of this task, and notes the huge limitations of superficial work in this respect, especially that which appropriates such an important area of study in order simply to make petty virtue-signalling points about ‘West versus the rest’, and in the process practically ignore hugely influential (in a global sense) developments just because they happen to have occurred in the West.
Tregear’s paper entailed the most far-reaching critique of contemporary musicology or indeed wider academia. I would like to extend his points relating to the overlap between advocates of a self-focused approach to academic writing and the priorities of university managements. But I believe the neo-liberal meeting of minds goes further, in areas of musicology and cultural studies in particular. There is a long and distinguished tradition (coming from such distinct thinkers as Walter Lippmann, Theodor Adorno, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Richard Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Jim McGuigan, Greg Philo and Naomi Klein; but in diametric opposition to cultural populists such as Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, John Fiske or Andrew Ross) which maintains that the meanings of culture and media and their effects upon consciousness are not always determined wholly by the immediate cultural producers (in the sense of the artists) nor by the recipients (listeners, viewers, readers, etc.) but can also reflect and propagate other priorities and agendas determined by the powerful industries behind such culture. It would be surprising if this were not the case, considering the vast sums of money such industries spend on marketing, market research, advertising, focus groups, and so on, or if this did not have some impact upon a wider cultural sphere, including that which is less big business. But this view is hard to square with the uncritical adulation of popular culture (and often, by extension, the ultra-commercialised sphere in which much of it exists), and the belief that such culture empowers both musicians and listeners (in contrast to much maligned ‘high culture’, the alleged hierarchies and hegemonic values of which are dissolved in a culture operating first and foremost in the marketplace). In the work of Susan McClary or Georgina Born, and their countless acolytes in academia, a ‘romancing of the marketplace’ has become so commonplace that it can be viewed as highly contentious even to question it. The links between this world view and the agenda of the neo-liberal university, equally concerned to portray the market as an empowering force, could at best be described as naive, at worst as wholly cynical.
Powell’s identification of the important distinction between semiotics and communication theory was new to me, and explains a good deal. His advocacy of a combination of semiotics/topics with reflective hermeneutics is extremely promising, as is his insistence on a properly dialectical rather than narrowly hierarchical approach to the relationship between different parameters within a film. It is disappointing, even shocking, to hear some of the outright misrepresentations and uninformed claims he identifies, not to mention the simplistic and often didactic strictures, but I know these are far from atypical, especially in popular and film music studies. Why is there such a cavalier disregard for basic factual accuracy or fair representation of sources? I believe this has something to do with a beleaguered and automatically defensive reaction on the part of members of certain sub-disciplines, believing their field to be disrespected but then acting in such a way as to make this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, one might argue that there is a simpler explanation of why various others are hostile to fact-checking, scrutiny of arguments or any of the other processes which are used to discern the distinction between scholarly and other forms of writing. As I argued in a paper over a decade ago, and will return to in a future article, the renditions of the work of Carl Dahlhaus in particular by McClary, who lends her endorsement to Cheng’s book, entail a shocking number of flagrant misrepresentations, disregarding of material which does not suit her prior arguments, quoting out of context, and so on. While the stakes are obviously less serious than in the case of Irving, the scholarly practice is not much better. Only a few have been prepared to pursue such aspects of McClary’s work (one good example is Tim Carter’s ‘An American in…?’, Music & Letters, vol. 83, no. 2 (May 2002), pp. 274-8). Others simply reiterate her work without checking it against the sources it claims to represent, and – whether unwittingly or otherwise – help to consolidate such misrepresentations and render them ideology. This is the essence of how post-truth propaganda works, and it is disappointing to see this process prevalent in academia, and the ways in which it does indeed facilitate ascendancy within power structures. Only a properly ‘paranoid’ approach can serve as a corrective.
Without any conception of scholarly truth or value other than nebulous demands that work should do ‘social justice’, how is it ever possible that work can be marked, peer-reviewed or otherwise evaluated fairly by those adhering to the type of post-truth view expounded by Cheng and others (as found in some of Just Vibrations‘ more hagiographic reviews, such as that by Kyle Devine, writing in Music and Letters – a large section of which was reproduced in one of the targets of Devine’s ire, the blog Slipped Disc, which ran a series of earlier blogs on Cheng’s book). Such processes may need be subject to vigorous scrutiny and if necessary appeal, because of the very real risk of censorship of all who do not adhere to a narrow political outlook. The grievance studies hoax is just the tip of the iceberg of a wider corrosion of academia, which is certainly not total (or else academics such as me, or the others in the panel, would not really be at liberty to critique it), but still a major force. It is also time to look at the working of academic power structures, as begun by Tregear, it to examine on what basis Cheng and others have been able to acquire institutional power, just as they malign others in this respect.
The reception of the book Rethinking Contemporary Musicology will be interesting to view, and is sure to include various significantly more negative responses than encountered in this forum. But, despite hearing privately a couple of rather petty responses which nitpicked a few small details rather than engage with the wider arguments, I was encouraged to find the number of people (as witnessed in subsequent discussions after the forum) who felt the importance of much of what was discussed, and indeed felt more at ease discussing such issues themselves as a result of this forum.
+ These and other issues are addressed in my three forthcoming essays ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Study of Western Art Music: Questions of Context, Realism, Evidence, Description and Analysis’, and ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography: Uncritical Musical Perspectives’, both in Research and Writing about Contemporary Art and Artists, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2020), and ‘The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music: Territorial and Methodological Concerts’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology.
The cover story of today’s Sunday Times indicates a plan on the part of the UK government to reduce fees in higher education.
According to the story:
He [Education Secretary Damian Hinds] revealed that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy”.
Ministers expect this to lead to dramatic cuts in fees for arts and social science courses, which universities have expanded because they are the cheapest to run and make them the most money.
Under the plans, universities will be told to offer: more two-year degrees; sandwich courses, where students spend time in the workplace; and “commuter courses”, where they live at home to cut costs.
Various television interviews today with Hinds and also with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah have done nothing to dispel such suggestions, though precise details are vague. A statement from the Prime Minister is promised tomorrow, though it is unclear how much has yet been decided, how much will be the outcome of a review.
There are various outcomes I could envisage, few of them likely to be positive for those working in the arts and humanities in British universities. The items on the following list are not mutually exclusive.
- A re-introduction of the pre-1992 divide (though ministers will be at pains to stress how different it is), whereby the sector will once again divide into a series of universities in the traditional sense (probably the Russell Group and a handful of others) and others offering more vocational and technical courses (most of those which became universities after 1992 and maybe some others as well). This will be spun as entailing a new level of support for technical education, with the second group of institutions intended to be akin to German Technische Universitäten. The latter institutions will receive little or no support for research, and most lecturers will be on teaching-only contracts. The government money thus saved will be used to finance a cut in some tuition fees.
- A push for many degrees, especially in the arts and humanities, to be able to be undertaken in two years, delivered by a mixture of lecturers on teaching-only contracts (whose increased teaching burden would leave little time for any research), casual academic staff without permanent contracts, and postgraduates.
- A limitation of practically all government research money to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, with nothing for the arts and the humanities, though the social sciences may keep some.
- A variant of 3, in which all or the bulk of arts and humanities research money is only available to those in Russell Group institutions.
- The introduction of a direct link between ’employability’ (as measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework) and the level of fees which an institution is allowed to set.
- An insistence that the majority of academic jobs be teaching only. Having a research position will then become one of the most sought-after things in HE.
Most of these measures, or some variants thereof, will be designed to enable the government to cut fees without having to pledge any more money for HE. I believe strongly in the abolition of tuition fees and re-installment of maintenance grants for all, but realise at present this is unlikely to be on the cards (even with a Labour government which pledges to abolish fees, but will be hit by the dire economic consequences of a Brexit they are doing little to stop).
The outlook for the arts is bleak, and especially for degrees in performing arts such as music, theatre, dance, or various types of spatial arts, which include a practical element requiring significant resources for appropriate facilities. Already, as a result of the introduction of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate), there was a five-fold fall in the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects at secondary school in 2015-16, while other evidence points to a special fall in take-up and provision of music. When combined with other likely problems relating both to recruitment and access to research funding following Brexit, this will put various music and other arts departments in a highly precarious position, as some already are.
The arguments for the employment benefits of arts and humanities degrees have been rehearsed often, as for example in response to politicians such as former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan dismissing arts and humanities subjects and urging pupils at school to concentrate on STEM if they want a better career. I do not wish to dwell on these further here, not because I do not believe them to be true, but because I resent the debate always being framed in such narrowly utilitarian terms. Rather, I want to ask why many – including some in academia – have lost such faith in the value of the study of the arts and humanities as an end in itself, and are submitting to terms of reference which will always place them at a disadvantage?
In many continental European universities, there are battles to save rare subjects in the face of declining student numbers, but at least some measures are being taken to prevent these from extinction. It would be nice to imagine that the UK government (or the opposition) were backing similar measures, but evidence of that is in short supply. I wonder in how many other developed countries one would find a vice-chancellor of a major university declaring the irrelevance of the study of sixth-century history, as the late Patrick Johnston, of Queen’s University Belfast, did in 2016. I refuse to accept that the study of early medieval (or ancient) history is somehow automatically less ‘relevant’ than modern history – or that the study of Guillaume de Machaut is less ‘relevant’ than that of Madonna. Any measure of the relevance of history in proportion to the temporal remoteness of the period in question ultimately undermines the case for the study of history at all. There has also been, in the UK, a marked decline in foreign language degrees, no doubt linked to a decline in their study in schools. It is dispiriting and more than a little arrogant when those in Britain no longer feel it important to engage with any of the world’s many other languages.
There have been, and will be for a long time, heated debates about the value to individuals and society as a whole of various types of art, and especially regarding their purported humanising or civilising potential. Overwhelming evidence exists from the fascist era that individuals with a love for and firm schooling in high culture could still commit crimes against humanity. At the very least, this renders automatic assumptions of such culture’s civilising potential impossible to maintain. But one need not subscribe to the views of Matthew Arnold (themselves more complex and nuanced than sometimes credited) in order to believe that a society with only minimal support for and education in the arts and humanities to be one which is deeply impoverished.
So what should be included in teaching and research of these disciplines? I would argue that at the very least, students should be encouraged to explore not only the forms of culture that they would encounter anyhow, but also those of different times and places, not to mention less familiar or commercially successful genres. Such culture can benefit from being examined in its social, historical, geographical, political, ideological contexts, without in any way neglecting its specifics and technical details, which are not merely the by-product of such contexts. The relationships between different cultural forms (between music and theatre, between theatre and performance art, between literature and film, just to give a tiny few obvious examples) are also greatly important, as are the relationships between culture and the intellectual environment of its time/place/social milieu, the societal functions of various cultural forms, the nature and demographics of those who partake of such culture and their responses (i.e. the study of reception), the economic situation of cultural production, the role of changing technology, and much else.
Yet so often I encounter the dismissal of many of these things, including by some academics, in ways which mirror government ideologies, despite being presented in somewhat different language. In the case of my own field, music: government emphasis on STEM subjects is mirrored in increasing emphasis on technological skills in music over other varieties of musical study and musicianship (and in the case of research, favour bestowed upon anything which has a contemporary technological dimension), as if musical study is somehow more acceptable when it has some of the veneer of science. Positions become available for the teaching of commercial music, or functional music for another commercial medium (such as popular film or video games), more frequently than those requiring expertise in a historical field, or in musical cultures outside of the Western world. I was recently informed by one Professor of Theatre that historical study of that discipline has all but disappeared except in Russell Group institutions (though am interested to hear of any evidence to the contrary).
I accept that some of this is pragmatic, borne of desperate attempts to recruit and maintain students who have less and less of a foundation in music and the arts at primary and secondary school than ever. But I am dismayed at how many embrace rather than tolerate this situation. There was a time when the study of popular music (see this debate from two years ago on this blog) could reasonably be argued to inject increased diversity into rather rigid curricula. At best, this can entail the study of many different popular musics from various times and places, critical interrogation of the concept of the ‘popular’, consideration of various social contexts, means of production and distribution, not to mention relationship to other cultural traditions, languages, and so on. But when it means limiting a good deal of musical study to Anglo-American popular music of a restricted period (essentially that music which is already familiar to students), then the net effect for diversity is negative rather than positive. Ethnomusicologists (see another debate on this blog) eager to decry not only relatively traditional approaches to teaching Western art music, but also older approaches to their own disciplines which involved Western scholars spending considerable amounts of time in remote places, absorbing as best as they can the language, cultural practices, and so on, might reflect upon how precarious their own discipline might become if there is less of a place or welcoming environment for those interested in such things. The more musical study becomes simply about the application of a selection of methods derived from sociology or cultural anthropology to fields of musical activity close to home, the less reason there will be for institutions to support music as a separate field of study. The sociology and anthropology of music are vitally important sub-disciplines with multiple intellectual trajectories of their own, but if those engaged with them are housed solely in sociology and anthropology departments, they will then be in direct competition for students, funding and positions with the rest of those fields.
More widely, in many fields of cultural studies, especially the populist varieties which, as I have argued in some recent papers, are rooted in the work of the Birmingham School and especially that of Stuart Hall, commercial utility is equated with relevance, musical engagement is viewed as just another consumer activity, and research can amount either to conducting focus groups, or dressing up familiar informal chat about popular culture with a modicum of jargon. Any deeper critical engagement with popular taste, the latter empirically measured at one particular time and place, is dismissed as elitism. This amounts in many ways to an eschewal of arts education itself, and can lead to rather patronising ways of patting students and ‘the masses’ on the back simply for having the tastes they do, rather than encouraging them to venture beyond their comfort zones.
I do believe, after working in HE for 15 years (in multiple institutions), that most students who study arts subjects at university do so after having read some literature, heard or played some music, seen and acted in some theatre, looked at or produced some visual art, etc., and care about these and want to know more. They often seek help and guidance to navigate an overwhelming range of available culture, and also learn technical skills so as to be able to engage with this more incisively. Certainly not all will become equally drawn to all the manifold areas of study, methods, or emphases involved, nor could any realistically study all in detail in the limited time available for an undergraduate degree (for which I think we should be looking towards four- rather than two-year degrees, ideally) which is why we offer some degree of elective options. But I do believe it is important, indeed vital, that educators attempt to broaden students’ horizons, encourage them to explore beyond what they already know, and also consider the familiar from unfamiliar angles. Those educators, with years of experience in their own fields, are in a position to facilitate all of this. Not through spoon-feeding, teaching-to-test, or rote learning, but introducing what to students will be a plurality new ideas, new cultural forms, new contexts, and encouraging them to consider these critically.
I also realise this type of humanistic approach may not be attractive or feasible to some potential students, and this situation is unlikely to change without wider changes in primary and secondary education. With this in mind, I would not rule out questions as to whether the removal of the pre-1992 divide has been wholly beneficial, and whether a need to maintain the pretence that all degree courses are roughly equal just entails a race to the bottom for all. But technical colleges are not universities in the traditional sense, and it benefits nowhere to pretend otherwise, as argued well by Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton:
Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.
Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties.
I would not like to live in a narrow, utilitarian, technocratic society in which there is little wider societal interest in other times and places, in all the questions which the humanities raise, or one in which such interest and knowledge is limited to the upper echelons of society. Nor a society in which art has no meaning other than as a form of commercial entertainment, as some right-wing politicians in the UK have been urging for many years (see the notorious 1990 Westminster speech by then-Tory MP Terry Dicks, and the spirited and witty response by then-Labour MP Tony Banks). And I doubt that this type of society would be attractive to many, especially not those working in arts and humanities fields. But if many of them are not prepared to defend the ideals of the arts and humanities, acting instead as advocates for narrowly conceived notions of social ‘relevance’, defined in terms of being contemporary, technocratic, and generally restricted to the place and milieu of them and/or their students, what are the chances of any meaningful opposition to governments who would happily slash most of these?
Universities, the arts and the humanities, are not just means to ends but valuable in their own right. Cultures and cultural histories are far from unblemished things, to say the least, but it would still be negligent in the extreme to let them fade into oblivion. And allowing students to retreat into the comfort zone of the already-familiar is damaging to global citizenship. In some ways, those who advocate such an approach to education are already doing the Brexiteers’ work for them.
On June 1st, 2016, there took place at City University a debate on the subject ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists now?’, with a panel consisting of Amanda Bayley, Tore Lind, Laudan Nooshin, Michael Spitzer, and myself, chaired by Alexander Lingas. The starting point for the debate was Nicholas Cook’s article ‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 48-70.
Here is a video of the full debate.
Various statements from the debate and responses have been posted on my blog and that of Music at City. Here are all of these.
(My statement and that of Spitzer can also be viewed on the City blog here)
And here is my response to Nooshin’s statement, together with a series of ethnographically sourced statements of other musicologists’ and students’ experiences of ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists.
With thanks to various people who looked at earlier drafts and provided helpful feedback.
Since posting online my position statement on the question ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’ (the full debate can be viewed here – see also Michael Spitzer’s statement here and other responses to the event here), there has been a fair amount of negative responses from some ethnomusicologists, not least on social media. I would genuinely welcome open, scholarly, and proper responses to the specific arguments I made (they could be posted in the comments on this blog, for example); the comments I have seen have mostly not been of this nature.
I would urge all respondents to look up the ad hominem fallacy, and consider whether it is applicable to my statement, which I believe is entirely focused upon the arguments of the authors I discuss (save for the concluding statement, which parodies common ethnomusicological parlance to make a point).
Furthermore, few of the above seem to have read the first paragraph of my statement:
‘…when the object of study for this sub-discipline is Western art music, and it is on this body, or even canon, of work in English that I intend to concentrate today’
In that context, the following should be very clear:
‘Much of the ethnomusicological work I have been looking at does not simply consider the relationship between sounds and contexts, but brackets out sounding music out entirely. . . . What remains is what I call ‘musicology without ears’. This requires little in terms of traditional musical skills (in whatever tradition), and I believe the more this achieves a dominant or hegemonic place within contemporary musical education, the more it contributes to what I have referred to elsewhere the deskilling of a profession (meaning the loss of many skills specific to that discipline). Musicology can become little more than a more elementary sub-section of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, but rarely with the breadth or depth of methodological awareness to be found in some of those other disciplines (though I have wider doubts about cultural studies/industries in general). This can facilitate the ominous possibility of musical departments being closed or simply incorporated into others.’ [reverse italics added for emphasis]
My critique is focused on method, not on the object of study. There is a surplus of excellent ethnomusicological work, some of which I mention in my statement; other especially notable examples which come to mind include David P. McAllester’s Enemy Way Music: a Study of the Social and Esthetic Values as Seen in Navaho Music (Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum, 1954), Paul F. Berliner’s The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), or Christopher Alan Waterman’s Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990). The position statement, however, deals with a very specific canon of texts, much celebrated by a small group of authors, and which I find to be deeply problematic (and in some cases hardly deserving of the epithet ‘scholarly’) for reasons outlined in the statement, which will be explicated in more detail in a forthcoming article.
In another post on the subject, I gave some further reflections and posted a long section from Paul Harper-Scott’s book The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism relevant to the subject. There I mentioned a forthcoming response to the position statement given in the debate by Laudan Nooshin. I think it will suffice to say that several of the traits I identified in the ethnomusicological work I considered in my original statement – a tendency within the subdiscipline towards ‘endlessly telling its own story and creating its own canons of hallowed figures’ (not least in the statement contained in PPT 6); an uncritical attitude towards any work which simply ticks a sub-disciplinary box; a rather dismissive attitude to the one thing which defines musicology as a discipline – the study of sound; the padding out of material with often rather unremarkable verbatim quotes; the use of loaded politics and language (‘musicological hegemony’, ‘occupied musicology’) to try and close down debate, rather than more measured critical engagement; and the need to denigrate Western music and established forms of musicology in order to bolster ethnomusicological disciplinary identity – are all clearly on display in that paper. To talk about ‘occupied musicology’, using a backdrop of the Israeli Wall, and thus to imply her own situation, and that of other ethnomusicologists, is akin to that of Palestinians living under brutal occupation, is hyperbole unworthy of a response.
Nooshin’s claims made elsewhere in the debate that imply that ethnomusicologists know all about Western music, but only they are qualified to have a view on their own field, are not only self-serving and territorial, but simply not credible. An Arnold Whittall or a Helga de la Motte-Haber is in a position to make broad statements about twentieth-century music, a Carl Dahlhaus was on the nineteenth-century, a Manfred Bukofzer on the Baroque era, and so on, all after many years of intense study of these periods. I feel reasonably able to make some broader observations on Western art music since 1945, though know there is still plenty more to learn. It takes a very good deal of study, perhaps a lifetime, to be able to make broad statements about ‘Western music’ (or ‘Western art music’), even within restricted geographical and/or chronological parameters; it seems unlikely that scholars who may only have studied this music at undergraduate level or in general survey courses can pronounce expertly on it.
I am especially interested in Nooshin’s remarks about a ‘fetishist focus on music as sound’, which prompts me to ask why she would describe in this way the type of study which arises out of a fascination with music and its most defining attributes? This common type of Anglophone ideology, by which focused study on sounding music is viewed as a decadent or effete triviality (as literary study has also been viewed at various times in the English-speaking world) compared to the more supposedly weighty social sciences, is highly concerning. I also strongly disagree with that rather narrowly utilitarian attitude which privileges social function over art. A study of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s contrapuntal practice, of orchestration in late-nineteenth-century French composers and the influence of Berlioz’s Traité, or of approaches to phrasing and rhetoric in the work of contemporary performers (as was undertaken by Franz Kullak in the 1890s, one of a great many examples which disproves Nooshin’s erroneous claim that traditional musicology has only recently considered performance), or developments in crooning technique and genre in line with new microphone technology and employment at the hands of Frank Sinatra and others, are not of lesser value than a focus group study of iPod preferences on a particular housing estate, or an interview with the composer of music for a specific computer game, despite the surface topicality of these last two examples. Nor are studies of the provenance of lesser-known Icelandic sagas, of archaic and classicising tendencies in the poetry of Vasile Alecsandri, or the relationship between post-1945 Polish experimental theatre and the earlier work of Zygmunt Krasiński, then Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, less relevant than a study of celebrities’ choices when appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please. The arts are not to be valued simply to the extent that they overlap with elementary and broadly populist sociology or other more ‘relevant’ disciplines, or are superficially contemporary (nor should the study of, say, sixth-century history be dismissed in the manner of the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast). And what evidence is there that the study of music in the context of war, or torture, has any more impact upon these latter fields* than the study of techniques of motivic or cellular transformation in one composer’s work might have upon other composers looking to develop these techniques?
Nooshin’s attractive idea of ‘a more holistic field studying music in its broadest sense’ is not what I actually find in the work I surveyed, in some of which music is just mentioned in a token manner, in the context of otherwise essentially journalistic writing. In her paper she refers to ‘music in all its diversity and beauty: as physical movement, as behavior, as ideas – something that people think and talk about and that plays a central role in and shapes their lives’, implying that no-one other than ethnomusicologists had considered these things. In fact, none of these subjects are at all new to traditional forms of musicology (nor various other disciplines), but they supplement and enhance the study of sound rather than replace it. The study of physical movement without sound is theatre or dance. The study of behaviour without sound is psychology. The study of ideas without sound is philosophy. All of these are highly sophisticated disciplines in their own right; few scholars could plausibly claim mastery of all of them. But the exclusive use of questionnaires and interviews to deal with these subjects is a very narrow approach, just as they are for the study of music. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ (a term wittily decried by the musicologist Mark Everist) can sometimes amount to ‘Jack-of-all-trades-ism’; drawing upon other disciplines can be extremely valuable, for sure (and is nothing new), but to enhance a field of study, not to compensate for lack of real expertise in any one discipline or artistic field, or to satisfy those who hold the study of art in low esteem. It is difficult to see how the claims being made by Nooshin for ethnomusicology could ever be fulfilled when sound becomes a dispensable factor.
Anglo-American musicology is in a poor state, for sure, compared to some of its counterparts elsewhere, in the UK beset by a wider educational culture involving cuts to primary and secondary musical education leaving many upcoming students ill-prepared, a wholehearted embrace of commercial music above most else since the Thatcher years, a broader political and intellectual culture disdainful of the arts in general and music in particular, not to mention the insidious effect of the Research Excellence Framework, which reduces much research to attempts to game that system. It is perhaps not surprising if some ethnomusicology reflects these various trends, which can be found equally in various other sub-disciplinary areas.
Nooshin wrote ‘I, however, do do ethnography and for this debate thought it would be useful to put the central questions to some real people, mainly but not only ethnomusicologists.’ With this in mind, I have done similarly, and asked six musicologists (three men, three women) and one post-graduate student (other students promised replies, but they have not yet materialised!) about their experience of ethnomusicology or ethnomusicologists in their professional or academic life. None of these are at my own institution or any at which I have worked, but I hope Nooshin will agree they are ‘real people’ (I am not sure what would be another type). The results are varied, but some are quite disturbing. These were provided to me in writing and I have not edited any content.
Musicologist A: My experience of ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists is quite varied. I’ve taught in departments where there was no such thing, and those departments certainly felt rather old-fashioned and crusty. I’ve also taught in departments moving towards a large new intake of ethnomusicologists, many of whom were barely trained in traditional technical skills for western music and who I felt were basically doing forms of sociology, cultural history, anthropology, etc. with something often unreflectively called “music” (whether ‘soundscapes’ or practices) as a central focus. Certain individuals, especially if they were converts from western music training, can in my experience be evangelical in tone about their work. Enthusiasm is fine, but this tone comes with a censoriousness that implies that anyone not interested in the popular/rural/amateur music(al practices) of country X (X being country far away from the UK, expensive to fly to, with a better climate) is at best a Eurocentric prig or at worst a racist Nazi. This evangelism extends in research presentations to a rather flat, uncritical reporting of what the people of country X say about their music(al practices). As someone whose research materials all pre-date sound recording and whose human subjects are all dead, I find ethnographic emphasis on live interviews/recordings rather limiting and am often horrified at the uncritical attitudes scholars have to the ‘texts’ generated by these methods. The best ethnomusicologists I have worked with have strong critiques of authenticity narratives, skepticism about the general way the ethnographic method is conducted, read books (including historical writing and writing about history) and use various kinds of theory that pervade other kinds of humanities scholarship. The worst simply show what look like lovely holiday snaps, give a pseudo-literary, ‘atmospheric’ narrative about their trip, and quote their interlocutors at length, nodding sagely. I would say that the latter are in the vast majority. I tend to view them as well-meaning but misguided. One former colleague (who works on Western music and has left the UK to work in a country where there is basically no ethnomusicology) said privately that they are ‘those who think they will go to heaven because they work on the music of poor people’. Given that I do not know any ethnomusicologists who did not attend fee-paying schools, which places them in the top 7% of the country’s children economically, I imagine they view their work as a kind of penance. (I realize I’ve described ethnomusicology as a kind of religion, which is what it feels like. In some departments it feels like they want to convert or excommunicate everyone else until there’s one united church of ethnomusicology. I’m a heretic, I’m afraid.).
Musicologist B: Ethnomusicology is no longer just a complementary area of study and research in tertiary music departments. It has become the locus of an ideological ‘given’ that compares, whether overtly or by implication, but always unfavourably, the music of ‘authentic’ popular genres, or non-Western societies, with an apparently hopelessly sexist, racist, decadent and/or anaemic Western art music tradition. That tradition, and the skills needed to study it, can, thus, be dismissed as a field of serious study ever earlier in undergraduate degree programmes. We are at growing risk of losing our capacity to understand our own musical culture, let alone anyone else’s, as little more than the triumph of the here and now, with no historical depth or genuine critical potential.
Musicologist C: Just before I arrived at my institution, where the Music Department was going through a period of development and planned expansion, an ethnomusicologist had been appointed to develop and build on what was deemed to be a burgeoning research and teaching area. I got on well with the ethnomusicologist. After some time, with little development in the area, the institution appointed another ethnomusicologist to try to stimulate the desired development it had seen little return on. After a year, it was clear neither ethnomusicologist got on with the other and they effectively refused to work together. Within a decade, both had moved to pastures new. There are no plans to employ ethnomusicologists in the department’s strategy going forward.
Musicologist D: What really surprises me is how nasty my colleagues can be, both to staff and to students. Intellectual disagreements are to be expected, and I can even understand how passions can rise in meetings where the redesign of the degree programme is being discussed. But ethnomusicology colleagues victimize staff who work on “imperialist” music, by which they mean Western classical music: they shout them down in meetings, alleging that they are the only people who are interested in the social contexts of music and therefore have a moral high ground. This makes everyday dealings unpleasant. But what is worse is that they single out students for humiliating treatment in lectures. Over the years I’ve had many students tell me how they’re been laughed at by ethnomusicology lecturers, told that their views (for instance that it’s worth studying the history of music, or that there’s something of interest in nineteenth-century symphonies) are conservative, “have been unspeakable since at least the 1990s”, and so on. Again, what the students describe isn’t just disagreement: it’s real vitriol, communicated with a clear sense of moral as well as intellectual superiority. If ethnomusicologists practiced what they preached, they would be open to the varied perspectives of their colleagues and their students. But far from that, I find too often that ethnomusicologists feel that their way alone is right, that their knowledge alone is permitted, and that the views of their classical-music Others should be suppressed.
Musicologist E: Ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists have not loomed large on my horizon; as student I avoided the optional lectures on Egyptian music just as I steered clear of contemporary music. At the university where I got my first job, there was one ‘proper’ ethnomusicologist in the traditional sense, i.e. somebody who studies a non-European musical culture and its practices. With my own interests in early music, we were both a bit odd in the context of this very ‘contemporary’ department, so we shared eye-rolling moments when other colleagues universalised from their 20th-century perspective. There was also one other colleague who took an anthropological approach to Western music, but since the study of instruments (organology) is quite a traditional and non-controversial pursuit in the academic system where I received my training, I never thought much about how his approach differed from – or was superior to – any other way of dealing with this topic.
Recently I had the opportunity to engage with several ethnomusicologists at a conference in Germany. Their interests were refreshingly diverse: the construction of Inka music as masculine, heavy metal, music and migration, German Schlager, transnational music pedagogy. Since the conference was organised by music historians and mainly dealt with issues of historiography and biography in the digital age, the ethnomusicologists helpfully slanted their presentations in a way that translated well into more historical ways of thinking, weighing carefully the advantages and disadvantages of our different methodologies (for example, how the traditional format of the artist’s biography is currently adapted in ethnomusicology). Funnily the ethnomusicologists were the most critical of a recently set-up programme on ‘global’ music; we all agreed that it would just encourage cultural tourism. Exchanges were lively but not hostile – you can always get a lively discussion out of any bunch of musicologists if you throw the word ‘canon’ into the ring! However, it should be noted that we were in a decisively non-competitive situation and didn’t have to squabble over curriculum design, student numbers or funding allocations! And perhaps it does make a difference that ethnomusicology has been built into the fabric of Musikwissenschaft from the start (starting humbly as ‘vergleichende Musikwissenschaft’) – so historians are less tempted to belittle it as merely a complement to their ‘canon’, and ethnologists are less tempted to cast themselves as revolutionaries who have to overturn the entire discipline.
Musicologist F: In my professional capacity as a musicologist who has worked at a number of universities in Europe and the US, I have never encountered any of the institutional tension that is reported elsewhere between faculty in musicology and faculty in ethnomusicology. In my professional experience, both subject areas have happily co-existed, often strengthening and enhancing one another whilst also giving students an impressive intellectual base and a broad range of skills. The fact that the two have happily co-existed in my experience is largely due to the fact that they are not competing with one another. Neither is under threat.
The debate at City University is timely, and I found it to be hugely informative in terms of the professional experience of others and the light it shed on the current state of the discipline(s). The one aspect of this debate that relates directly to my experience, as a self-confessed WAM musicologist, concerns the increasing marginalization of Western art music in academic musical spheres, whether on the conference circuit, in the classroom, or in publications. Here, I am acutely conscious of an epidemic that Ian Pace has been at pains to warn us about for some time: the deskilling of musicology. And, as Michael Spitzer notes in his contribution to this debate, in this respect, there is not a two-way street between ethnomusicology and musicology.
The merits of embracing ethnomusicological approaches in WAM musicology (to speak only to my own perspective) seem self-evident and were rehearsed very well by Bailey, Lind, and Nooshin at the City University debate. The urgent issue, to my mind, is not the riches to be gained in such an embrace but, conversely, what stands to be lost by the marginalization of Western art music. Approaching this from the point of view of skills, the marginalization of WAM musicology risks losing something which cannot subsequently be regained. Unlike ethnomusicology, which speaks to music through a range of disciplinary voices, WAM musicology relies on a knowledge of the music itself, to employ another much maligned phrase. The difference to my mind, then, is illustrated by paraphrasing Johannes Brahms: there are those who think in tones, and those who think about tones. There is room in our academic world for both, and an abundance of the latter. The former are an endangered species. Let’s not risk losing any more of them.
Post-graduate student: My experience of ethnomusicology during my undergraduate degree was not an entirely positive one. Whilst certain lecturers in the discipline were undertaking research and teaching, which I felt (both then and now) to be important, just as many espoused positions, which I found frustrating. I shall attempt to outline my reasons for this as follows: Whenever certain ethnomusicologists in the department broached the topic of Western Art Music, there was an assumption that only middle class people, who had been to private schools, could like classical music. Indeed, we were told that, as we were studying for a degree, sold to us on the basis that most of us probably quite liked Beethoven, that we almost certainly were too. Whether this is a fair comment or not (in the case of my educational background, it actually wasn’t), I nevertheless found it a strange one. We were told, so often, that Western Art Music relied on universals, that worked to corrode and obfuscate the memory of historical privilege. We were told that ethnomusicology was the antidote to such empty universality: it focused on the particular, the autochthonous, and the ‘local’. Ethnomusicology seems to rely on universals of its own, however, although these are never acknowledged. They posit the spectrum of people interested in classical music as apparently homogenous and unchanging, who are, by and large, often separated, by their privilege, from the economic concerns of ‘ordinary’ people. Ethnomusicology posits musicology as its universal ‘Other’, then, both morally and academically, so that writing a paper on something non-Western becomes a morally courageous and virtuous thing to do. I’m not sure I agree, largely because value judgements, of any kind, were often censored by certain members of staff. This is, of course, a perspective quite common to much of present academia, non-musical as much as musical, and whilst it is a point I disagree with, it is not grounds, on its own, for the character assassination of a discipline. My experience, however, was that it was often adopted by certain lecturers, as a portentous display of personal morality (i.e. it is ‘immoral’ to dislike something), and I could never escape the feeling that there was a somewhat more insidious subtext to these demonstrations. As an example, a friend of mine was marked down in their essay on globalisation and world capitalism, for implying that there might be something in any way negative about these things. It just wasn’t a scholarly perspective, apparently. The fact of the matter is that much of this music only exists because of capitalism. Often it does not constitute the type of ‘authentic’ experience ethnomusicologists claim it to be; it is a cultural commodity in the same way that a can of Coke is. If one is to criticise the economic system, which incubates it, however, then one cannot escape criticising the musical object, either, and one is forced to make value judgements. On the other hand, if one keeps their distance, one can keep on writing about the musical object, without really passing comment on its ethical or political efficacy. This is economically and morally convenient, perhaps (i.e. one can publish more and more, whilst feeling themselves to be doing good), but it is not good scholarship. For one, it is descriptive, as opposed to critically incisive, and second of all, it claims to be doing moral work, when it actually amounts to no more than laissez-faire, postmodern fingering. The situation, for those people being studied, remains exactly the same, whilst the reputation of the academic in question grows. The criticism of this perspective would no doubt be that it is elitist to think things can be altered for the better. In an argument that sounds no different than a defence of Victorian economic conservatism, if one were to intervene in the lives of disadvantaged people, then it would be contrary to their own ‘choice’. In the current academic vocabulary, one might be accused of robbing them of their ‘agency’. However, I think it is misguided to think of many people’s lives in these terms. ‘Choice’ is a predominantly middle-class concept. If you live a hand-to-mouth existence, then choice has little to do with it; one does things out of necessity. By making out that those people studied have choice, and by celebrating their music, they simultaneously celebrate the secret necessity of those choices, which, to my mind, is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.
For reasons detailed in my original position statement, I make no scholarly claims for this method of investigation. Nonetheless, I believe these results demand some sober reflection.
[* It could of course be argued that the study of the use of music and torture might help equip a musician who wanted to write or locate some new music which would have maximum effect in such a context. But I can hardly imagine students and future torturers and dictators at the School of the Americas being deterred by some musicological study. ]
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.
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.
The video of the full debate which took place at City University on June 1st, 2016 ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’, is now online for all to view.
Participants were Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), Tore Tvarnø Lind (Copenhagen University), Laudan Nooshin (City University), Ian Pace (City University) and Michael Spitzer (Liverpool University). The debate was chaired by Alexander Lingas (City University).
The following are some other important links: first, reports and responses to the debate by Rachel Cunniffe and Ben Smith
I have published my own position statement online here.
Nooshin’s position statement and slides can be found here.
This debate has generated much discussion more widely, and hopefully will continue to do so. Many thanks to everyone for taking part.
The following is a text from which I read an abridged version at the debate at City University on ‘Are we all ethnomusicologists now?’, which took place on June 1st, with panelists Amanda Bayley, Tore Lind, Laudan Nooshin, Michael Spitzer and myself. This entailed a series of statements and then a debate following on from Nicholas Cook’s article ‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 48-70.
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]
I have also posted a long section from the earlier ‘outsider’ critique of ethnomusicology by J.P.E. Harper-Scott, which is given with commentary (and a related passage from Aijaz Ahmad) here.
Are We All Ethnomusicologists Now?
Position Statement by Ian Pace, for debate at City University, June 1st, 2016.
The Term ‘Ethnomusicology’
The very term ‘ethnomusicology’ has obvious implications through the use of the prefix ‘ethno’, which Nooshin and others have suggested is itself problematic. Despite the non-geographically-specific origins of the Greek term, nonetheless the long history of ‘ethnomusicology’ having dealt with musical cultures outside of the Western art tradition, whether folk and vernacular traditions in the West, or musical cultures (including ‘high cultures’) from the non-Western world in particular, together with the contemporary resonances of ‘ethno’ or ‘ethnic’, all suggest something post-colonial, anti-imperialist, on the side of the wider masses, and so on. Who of an even vaguely left-of-centre political persuasion would want to be seen opposing such a thing? But this is different when the object of study for this sub-discipline is Western art music, and it is on this body, or even canon, of work in English that I intend to concentrate today. In general, I believe it is always a cause for concern when any type of scholarship is judged more for its politics than its scholarly rigour, whatever those politics might be, and ethnomusicology of whatever type should not be immune from critique for purely political reasons.
Own positions – introduction
The very last thing I would want to do is in any sense deny the value of studying music from outside the Western art music tradition; on the contrary, I believe it is essential. In the context of my own work on Michael Finnissy I have drawn extensively on ethnomusicological and folkloristic work, including John Blacking on Vendan African music, Alexis Chottin on Moroccan and Berber music, Habib Touma more widely on Arabic music, Diego Carpitella and others on Sardinian folk music, Samuel Baud-Bovey on Cretan folk music, Michael Hauser on Traditional Greenlandic music, any number of writers on African-American spirituals, and much else, not to mention related issues of orientalism and exoticism in music. These latter concerns have involved engagement not only with the tradition of Edward Said and later post-colonial theorists, but also alternative perspectives and critiques provided by the likes of Albert Hourani, Maxime Rodinson, Aijaz Ahmad and others.
I do not think however that we should have to be over-apologetic about a certain Eurocentrism in music study in Europe. Nor for the fact of being drawn to various types of music from very different social contexts primarily as a result of attraction to the sounds they make.
Nor would I wish in any sense to deny the vital importance of studying the social and political context of music and music-making. Ten years or so ago, I would get into furious arguments with some conservative musicians and others who were adamant that it was wrong to ‘bring politics into music’, and all my teaching and research into music history and other subjects involves a good deal of wider consideration of history, society, ideology, economics, the workings of musical institutions, and so on.
Yet nowadays I am deeply concerned, not about the incorporation of a plurality of approaches to music, but at the potential for subsumation of musicology into other disciplines, to such an extent that it loses any distinct identity of its own.
The Canon of Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music
On the hand-out you will find a bibliography I have compiled of relevant texts. I do not claim this to be comprehensive, but do believe it gives a fair range of what I would characterise as canonical works in this tradition. To keep the list within manageable limits, I have omitted studies of the performance and reception of Western art music outside of the Western world, such as the interesting work of Rachel Beckles Willson, Ben Etherington, Geoff Baker or Suzanne Wint, or various work dealing with the role of Asian musicians and music in Western traditions, such as that of Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, and Mari Yoshihara. There are three texts on the bibliography which time has not permitted to read: Livingston, which I haven’t been able yet to obtain (but am working on it), Chaikin and the full dissertation by Usner; so I will not refer to these.
I would separate out from my critique the excellent book by Michael Chanan which is really of a quite different nature to most of the others. This is really a social and economic history of music, in a long tradition of the work of Combarieu, Weber, Bloch, Mellers, Blaukopf, Raynor, Durant, and others, including some working in the former Soviet Bloc. Also I feel the work of Peter Jeffrey, to which I will return, is on another level of depth and expertise compared to most of the others, though not without some significant problems.
Sub-disciplines and issues of territory
As many have commented, defining ethnomusicology as a sub-discipline can prove elusive. But we still have scholars who self-identify as ethnomusicologists, and others who do not. Now there are very few ethnomusicology degrees in the UK, and as such ethnomusicologists have to find work on degree programmes simply identified as ‘music’. And while many popular music or music technology degrees are allowed to have dedicated degrees in which specialists in those fields can choose the whole core curriculum, those courses centered upon Western music, history, analysis, etc., are most frequently the ones which need to incorporate the ethnomusicologists. This can cause a good deal of tension, as found in various faculties.
In much of the literature I am considering (and also in the so-called ‘new musicology’), the writers spend a lot of time maligning Western art music, and so-called ‘traditional musicology’, often without detailed knowledge of either field – straw man characterisations are frequent, as for example in the work of Henry Kingsbury, Bruno Nettl, Stephen Cottrell or Pirkko Moisala. At the same time, I have seen no other sub-discipline so jealously defensive and keen to assert its own superiority, nor which spends so much time talking about itself in a somewhat cliqueish manner, endlessly telling its own story and creating its own canons of hallowed figures, as for example with Shelemay’s recounting of the figures behind the great ‘milestones’ of ethnomusicology: Alan Merriam, Alan Lomax, Timothy Rice, Mark Slobin, and equally revered non-musical sources such as the work of Clifford Geertz and Arjun Appadurai. Almost every writer in the canon I have drawn up cites most of the others before them, not least the work of Kingsbury, Philip Bohlman, Ruth Finnegan and Nettl, thus locating themselves within a newly constructed ‘great tradition’. Internal critique is very rare.
It often appears as if the simple fact of having employed what is identified as an ethnomusicological approach to the study of Western art music is enough to win any such writer a seat at the top table, and this overrides any more sober critical investigation of their work. This is the attitude I find in the work of Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Jonathan Stock, Cottrell, Tina K. Ramnarine, Moisala, Laudan Nooshin and some others. As such, in a relatively self-regulating world – through the processes of peer review, external examination and so on – what I believe to be very serious flaws in a good deal of this work, in terms of relatively standard scholarly criteria, are frequently overlooked. This is an approach which says as much about territorial motivations than any concern for fair and rigorous assessment of scholarship, and I find it very unhealthy.
Now I want to give you two quotes from John Blacking and Henry Kingsbury.
It is not enough to identify a characteristic musical style in its own terms and view it in relation to its society (to paraphrase a definition of one of the aims of ethnomusicology by Mantle Hood, who has done more for the subject than almost any other living ethnomusicologist). We must recognize that no musical style has “its own terms”: its terms are the terms of its society and culture, and of the bodies of the human beings who listen to it, and create and perform it.
John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 25)
The standard rhetoric for this is that music be studied “on its own terms,” a phrase which generally means that certain abstract concepts (“melody,” “harmony,” “rhythm”) are to be analysed in terms of other similarly abstract terms (“structure,” “form,” “development”). The prevailing idea is that music is not to be understood in terms of its sociocultural context, but rather in terms of its internal organization and cohesion.’
Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), p. 16.
I was once told that if I did not judge ethnomusicology, or some other types of research, on their own terms, I should not be assessing them at all. But I believe that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I do not identify as an ethnomusicologist, but I have read a reasonable amount of such literature. Some would say though that I am unqualified to have a view, but by the same token, many ethnomusicologists would be disqualified from speaking about other musical disciplinary areas or fields of practice about which they do not hesitate to pronounce – not least, for example, Born and others on modernist music, about which there is little evidence of any detailed engagement or familiarity.
This is one reason why I want to concentrate my own critique on a limited sub-section of ethnomusicology, rather than claiming to be able to make sweeping statements about a whole discipline, something I doubt many, including many ethnomusicologists, could really do, unless able to read a huge number of languages and derive expertise in practically all the musics of the world.
Music in social and cultural context – dialectical approaches
The study of music in a wider social context is actually nothing like as new as sometimes suggested; even Nicholas Cook concedes this when mentioning musicological traditions from outside of the English-speaking world. But this can take various forms. I want to consider the following statement from Bruno Nettl, which appears in his book Heartland Excursions:
A major theme of ethnomusicological discourse is that fundamental values of a culture are expressed in its music.
The word ‘society’ could also be substituted for ‘culture’ if one wishes to give this statement a more sociological rather than anthropological feel. I do find this statement, at least if applied in a general manner, to be reductive and limiting. In its most fundamentalist manifestation – and I do recognise that this is not true of all ethnomusicological work – it resembles what was once called a ‘vulgar’ form of Marxism, by which all elements of a societal superstructure are nothing more than a by-product of the economic base. Engels in particular in some important late letters rejected this view and argued Marx also did (and there is significant evidence for this in his writings), maintaining that the relationship was more dialectical, and that the superstructure could reflect back upon and affect the base. Acceptance of this dialectical formation underlies a good deal of continental Western Marxism in the 20th century, and I would argue strongly for a similar model for the relationship between music or any other specific cultural form and the wider social and cultural context in which it occurs. I do not believe that there are many contexts which one can use to account for every detail of the music emerging from therein (I will concede there are a few), and so this makes for degrees of ‘relative autonomy’. In some societies, not least advanced industrial ones, is there not an important place for some dissident culture, which wishes to confront that society? In contrast to this, the reductive view I describe ultimately leads to the politics of Zhdanov, and I would characterise hostility towards consideration of aspects of musical autonomy in such a fashion.
Nettl also writes about how the ethnomusicologist should try to avoid doing anything to affect the culture being studied. Over and above the question of whether this is indeed possible, even just through writing and publishing about it, I wonder why this should always be paramount? As Marx famously said, philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it; the same might be said of some anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. But many of these latter are not, say, education reformers with positive proposals for meaningful change, but those embroiled at the heart of academic systems and seeking academic capital through the allegiances and ideologies of their work. I find this somewhat futile and symptomatic of an academic world whose social engagement is little more than skin deep.
Walter Benjamin argued that there no record of culture which is not also a record of barbarism; even if this is hyperbolic, there are plenty of cases for which this is true. Instead of fetishizing cultures simply by being able to be labelled as such, I believe we might do better to look for those aspects of cultures which are worth valuing in contemporary contexts.
Much of the ethnomusicological work I have been looking at does not simply consider the relationship between sounds and contexts, but brackets out sounding music out entirely. Without detailed consideration of the specifics of musical material, it is impossible to gauge the possibility of a dialectical relationship between sounds and context, and I believe this is one reason why many writers do not do so.
What remains is what I call ‘musicology without ears’. This requires little in terms of traditional musical skills (in whatever tradition), and I believe the more this achieves a dominant or hegemonic place within contemporary musical education, the more it contributes to what I have referred to elsewhere the deskilling of a profession (meaning the loss of many skills specific to that discipline). Musicology can become little more than a more elementary sub-section of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, but rarely with the breadth or depth of methodological awareness to be found in some of those other disciplines (though I have wider doubts about cultural studies/industries in general). This can facilitate the ominous possibility of musical departments being closed or simply incorporated into others. With this in mind, I would suggest that musically deskilled ethnomusicology might itself be better housed within these other disciplines already.
The Limits of Ethnography Alone
Now I have another quote on slide from a 2014 article by anthropologist Tim Ingold, ‘That’s enough about ethnography’, which I would just like to give as background to what I am about to say.
“Ethnographic” has become the most overused term in the discipline of anthropology. It is hard to say exactly when the term broke loose from its moorings, or what the reasons were for its subsequent proliferation. These reasons are undoubtedly complex and could be the subject for a separate historical study. My concern in this article, however, is prospective, not retrospective. For I believe that this overuse is doing great harm to anthropology, that it is holding it back while other fields of study are surging forward, and that it is actually preventing our discipline from having the kind of impact in the world that it deserves and that the world so desperately needs. And because the cause is desperate, I shall not refrain from polemic. The tenor of what follows is partisan, and deliberately so. I am sick and tired of equivocation, of scholarly obscurantism, and of the conceit that turns the project of anthropology into the study of its own ways of working. A discipline confined to the theatre of its own operations has nowhere to go. In its spiraling descent into irrelevance, it has no-one and nothing to blame other than itself.
My aim is not to eliminate ethnography, or to expunge it from our anthropological consciousness. Nor is it to underrate its significance, and the complex demands it places on those who practice it. Rather, I am concerned to narrow ethnography down so that to those who ask us, in good faith, what it means, we can respond with precision and conviction. Only by doing so, I contend, can we protect it from the inflation that is otherwise threatening to devalue its currency to the extent of rendering the entire enterprise worthless. For it is not only within anthropology that ethnography is on the loose. I am sure I speak for the majority of anthropological colleagues in deploring the abuse of the term that has become commonplace in social sciences beyond our shores. How many research proposals have we read, coming from such fields as sociology, social policy, social psychology and education, in which the applicant explains that he or she will conduct “ethnographic interviews” with a sample of randomly selected informants, the data from which will then be processed by means of a recommended software package in order to yield “results”?
Such a procedure, in which ethnographic appears to be a modish substitute for qualitative, offends every principle of proper, rigorous anthropological inquiry— including long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context—and we are right to protest against it. And, we are equally entitled to protest when those who assess our own proposals demand of us, in the name of ethnography, the same slavish adherence to the protocols of positivist methodology, by requiring us to specify—for example—how many people we intend to talk to, for how long, and how they will be selected. Against such benchmarks, anthropological research is bound to be devalued.
I do not deny the value of ethnographic approaches, but I do have severe doubts about their exclusive or simply primary use, especially when this entails an ideological opposition to combination with other methods. It can be as if it is more important to maintain a territorial ‘purity’ than draw upon the widest range of possible strategies to help with producing the result.
In the work of Kingsbury, Nettl and Cottrell, one encounters very crude historical and analytical approaches. For example, Kingsbury’s consideration of the pedal marking in the second movement of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto takes no account of the type of instrument involved, which can profoundly affect the sounding result, and seems to imagine that it is impossible to execute opposing dynamics in two hands on the piano. Furthermore, his comments on Marcus Goldmann’s thoughts on Chopin editions shows little awareness of the real complications entailed, as Chopin published most of his works simultaneously in slightly different versions in three countries (and which differ in the specific case cited here). I believe he is dead-set upon setting up a clear dichotomy between fidelity to a text and some nebulous notion what is ‘expressive’, the latter defined with minimal thought to the historically problematic nature of such a category.
In the case of Shelemay’s article on the Boston early music movement, to my mind one of the weakest articles I have read, here are some of the findings (there are numerous others of a similar nature):
Early music practitioners, speaking from their own experiences, referred often to the scholarly literature and critical editions, which they know intimately and on which they draw in preparing detailed notes for concert programs and published recordings.
Thus the early music movement, while drawing on music of the historical past, is powerfully informed by the creative impulses of its practitioners and the aesthetics of the present.
Musicians in all of the ensembles with which we worked testified to the centrality of creative activity in their conceptualization and performance of musical repertory.
Many of our associates provided considerable detail about their instruments, conveying not just extraordinary technical knowledge, but the instrument’s history and social significance with great elegance.
For example, violinist Daniel Stepner noted the creative role of members of the Boston Museum Trio, consisting of himself, gambist Laura Jeppesen, and keyboardist John Gibbons, in such basic and little discussed processes as selecting and formulating their own repertory:
There’s lots of music that’s appropriate for us to play together, but very little, relatively little music that was written specifically for these instruments. (Daniel Stepner, 22 October 1996)
That musicians discuss performance practices in detail is no surprise, but the manner in which they were able to articulate details of musical practice as well as values behind them was one of the richest outcomes of the ethnographic process. For instance, while testimony about musical instruments is perhaps more easily rendered because of the easy availability of the instruments themselves, we found that singers also provided nuanced discussions of vocal production as well speculated on the difficult philosophical issues surrounding the voice and textual articulation.
I would have to say that this is all extremely basic (as is, say, the work of Frederick Seddon and Michelle Biasutti), certainly in comparison to a wide range of scholarly historical work on these areas; engagement with this work would have enhanced this study very considerably.
Finnegan admits reasonably that she does not feel qualified to engage with the music she encounters, but ultimately I feel her survey is quite limited as a result, and in many ways serves more as a list of data rather than critical analysis. Catherine M. Cameron tries to define ‘experimental music’ but with no evidence of familiarity either of later traditions to which this term has been applied, the history of the term, or perhaps most significantly of music created in Europe at the same time as that she studies. As such, I do not believe she is really in a position to argue for American ‘experimental music’ as a distinct field from European traditions, in the manner she does, though this is also true of others who have written on the subject, which is the subject of another paper!
In particular, in the majority of the work in my bibliography, there is little or no engagement with sound – this is true of the work of Marcia Herndon, Finnegan, Georgina Born, Vicky L. Brennan, Shelemay, Cottrell, Stephanie E. Pitts, Seddon and Biasutti, Eric Usner and Hettie Malcolmson. Instead the writers use comments from others about music, mostly of a very vague and general nature, without much consideration of what self-fashioning might be involved; Cottrell even cites xenophobic comments from musicians about making the Hitler salute at a conductor who rehearsed in German, without further comment. If there were no attempts to draw conclusions about the sounding music, that might not be so bad – as with Finnegan, say – but some do. But even with more modest aims, I feel such work to be flawed – it is almost like assessing a performance or piece simply by asking the performer or composer their view of it, and reproducing that as one’s own view – indeed Moisala does precisely that.
When I taught at Dartington College, I sometimes found students would undertake a project simply by asking a handful of questions of their friends, then using their answers as data for a supposedly scholarly and statistically representative survey. I feel some ethnography essentially does this on a slightly bigger scale, not least because of a lack of critical and analytical perspective on the data sourced and its limitations.
There is an understandable post-colonial reticence on the part of many Western ethnomusicologists and anthropologists for engaging in critical views of non-Western societies and cultures they encounter. When this attitude is carried over into the study of Western art music, however, and text is padded out with long ethnographically sourced quotations (often from those who are not necessarily very verbally articulate) presented without much commentary, critique or analysis, one is left with a type of writing which resembles nothing so much as casual journalism or even a publicist’s material, as in the work of Brennan, Cottrell, Moisala and Ramnarine.
In many classic ethnographies (for example Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, or Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour), the collation and presentation of ethnographically sourced data, especially quotations, is a starting point for the study, leading to detailed critical analysis. Some of the work on Western art music essentially omits the second stage, or renders it rather trivial. I would not claim that description is a neutral activity, and can be undertaken with great care and skill, but in many cases here it amounts to little more than reportage, perhaps ‘filed’ in a handful of unremarkable categories. In a similar manner Finnegan’s long book does read rather like a government inspector’s report. Other work, such as that of Pitts, resembles feedback surveys conducted by marketing departments for musical institutions. Other work like that of Moisala can read like a hagiographic publicity piece, not so different from a much earlier type of ‘life and works’, but with much less analytical detail on the works.
Those entail one type of approach; another is very agenda-driven, and most phenomena are described in extremely loaded language. This is true of the work of Christopher Small, Kingsbury, Nettl, Born, Malcolmson. It is hard to imagine work with such a strong axe to grind being viewed so favourably if applied to a group of South Pacific Islanders, as Björn Heile has pointed out in the context of Born.
Ethnography also relies upon the investment of a good deal of faith on the part of the reader that the author has represented their source material in a fair manner, not distorting, misattributing, quoting radically out of context, fabricating, or blatantly ignoring substantial amounts of data which might not suit an argument. Where documentary sources are available, these can at least be checked by another where there is reason for doubt. I have to say that in some of these cases, seeing how information which can indeed be checked is treated in such a cavalier manner, I am not always sure I feel prepared to invest this faith, and might be sceptical about some of the writers’ other work as a consequence.
Oral Tradition, Jeffrey and Lind
I have had chance just to skim Tore Lind’s book The Past is always Present: The Revival of the Byzantine Musical Tradition at Mount Athos, which is fascinating, and clearly very far from being narrowly territorial or ideological – it combines fieldwork with other forms of evidence, paleographic, historical, etc. And I am aware that there is a wide range of other scholarship identified in one way or another as ethnomusicological for which this is the case; and for that matter other scholarship where very little other sources are available than those provided by fieldwork. But this is patently not the case with Western art music.
Lind writes about the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘reinvented’ pasts, with relation to Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s work on the ‘invention of tradition’. If I cannot buy into the characterisation of modern social theory cited from Arjun Appadurai which argues that such theory posits a ‘single modern moment’ – I find that too crude a characterisation on Appadurai’s part – I do believe there can and should be some type of middle way. This is where I think ideologies self-identifying as postmodern have been far from enlightening when presenting stark alternatives between the idea of history as some utterly objective body of facts on one hand, or completely unknowable on the other. I know of no serious historian who would argue the former position, but few other than the likes of Keith Jenkins or Patrick Joyce would deny there are some things which can be construed as facts with a fair degree of certainty. And there have been and will be many who would prefer that some of these are removed or at least marginalised from the historical record. Not just nationalistic politicians, but also many others associated with some institution or set of cultural practices in whose positive reputation they have much vested. Many in the Catholic Church might not like the long history of the abuse of children by priests, and their protection by the higher church authorities, to feature prominently in histories of that church, but I believe these are absolutely a part of that culture. For ‘traditions’ to be ‘invented’ does not require that nothing about these traditions has some palpable historical basis, but can simply mean that the particular selections are too narrow, idealised, and so on, and often used simply to legitimate present practices even where there exists historical evidence to the contrary. And for that reason I find Lind’s suggestion of allowing ‘various culture members to determine what they themselves believe to be authentic’ problematic – I would ask which culture members are granted such authority, and why should one necessarily privilege their view over that of others, including those who might have less obvious vested interests, and may be more subject to proper scholarly critique? When practitioners lay claim to historical foundations for their practice, as so many do, then it appears entirely legitimate to me to investigate critically the basis upon which those claims are made. This is not, of course, to say that there would necessarily be anything less worthy per se of a contemporary tradition which has no basis for such claims and does not make them.
Lind himself makes a critique of Peter Jeffrey’s work which concurs with that to which I was arriving – he says ‘It is a fantasy to imagine that some contemporary (“primitive”) practices exist untouched by time, making themselves available for chronological comparison, and, equally, to suppose that medieval chant has existed in a static form throughout history’ (p. 30). This indicates a wider problem with the use of ethnographic approaches alone to establish historical information, in cases where there are no living witnesses to the historical time in question, and especially where a long period of time has elapsed, as obviously with medieval chant. But even where living witnesses do exist, even then oral testimony can be problematic, not least because of the fallibility of human memory, as has been studied in detail by scholars working with survivors of genocide or other atrocities.
Lind does make the point that checking contemporary practice against historical evidence would not work in his study of Mount Athos, as the monks use the same historical evidence – though I presume he does not rule out the possibility, in this or other contexts, of discovering new historical evidence of which practitioners are unaware, and which might problematize such practice in terms of historical questions? Nonetheless, he says that ‘the ways that the monks interpret and relate to historical evidence become the central issue’ which seems eminently reasonable as an approach, and has some parallels with historically-informed performance of Western art music (bearing in mind that a large number of performers of such music, including those who would not self-identify as ‘historically informed’, appeal to some concept of a historical tradition to legitimate their practices).
Kingsbury, Nettl, Cottrell and Jonathan Shull all comment on the extent to which classical performers are often keen to present their pedagogical lineage – their teacher studied with X, who studied with Y, etc., etc., who studied with Beethoven, and so on. All except Shull view this unfavourably, and I would agree, seeing it as akin to a game of Chinese Whispers. Yet I do not see how then one can maintain that similar processes are so reliable with respect to oral traditions in other cultural environments, some of which have experienced major historical upheavals.
Kingsbury notes how any study of modern American culture is lent an ‘anthropological aura’ by referring to ‘the tradition of studying “simple” or “primitive” societies’. He gives as an example J.M. Weatherford’s ethnography of US Congress, uses of terms like ‘shamans’, ‘bigmen’, ‘warlords’, etc.
Many of the phenomena for which ritualistic or other anthropological explanations are given in this body of work, as in the work of Small, Kingsbury, Hearndon and Nettl, can be explained in practical terms. For example, the fact of not having doors opening directly into a concert hall can simply be a way of avoiding extraneous noise generated by latecomers. Kingsbury insists that when students contrast administrative weaknesses of an institution with the strength of teachers, they ‘conceal the fact that these factors are elements of a single organizational structure’. Well, many of the staff on the second floor of the Juilliard School during my time simply couldn’t care less about practical student matters, sometimes acting as if we were trespassing upon their time and space. I can’t see how asking them to buck their ideas up would have undermined the artistry of the faculty members.
It can seem, in line with Ingold’s critique, various writers including Kingsbury, Cottrell, Pitts, Malcolmson, and Shull are more concerned with forcing far-fetched analogies with other anthropological findings than the investigation of specifics relating to the matter under investigation. And this is part of a wider tendency to clothe the work in a good deal of jargon in ways I believe to be unnecessary.
Academics need to show in this day and age how they are supposedly connecting with a ‘real’ world, so often choose areas of study accordingly. But they also need to prove their writing is ‘academic’; simple liberal use of jargon serves this purpose, and will impress some naïve people belonging to management, REF examiners, or research council board members, even where the underlying thought and research is banal and unremarkable. I have seen countless examples of this not just in this body of ethnomusicology, but also new musicology, popular music studies, music sociology, film and media music studies, acoustic ecology, and so on.
A wider question exists of this work serving as a substitute for other political engagement, such as through industrial action within higher education, but that is beyond the scope of this talk.
Wider Politics and Aesthetics
Whilst the likes of K.A. Gourlay, Chanan, to some extent Nettl, and for that matter Howard Becker, come from slighter older traditions in the social sciences still showing the influence of Marxism – albeit frequently of the empirical and Stalinist variety dominant in the English-speaking world – the work of many younger figures demonstrate clearly the influence of ideologies frequently identified as postmodern. I would associate these strongly with the growth of neo-liberalism during the Thatcher-Reagan years, and then continuing after the end of the Cold War. This is most explicit in the work of Born, who has elsewhere expressed a clear view of the superior virtues of culture supported through ‘petty capitalism’ than by institutions supported by the state (which I would categorise as democratically accountable institutions financed through taxation and public spending), referring back to her IRCAM study in such a context. This accords perfectly with David Cameron’s ideal of the ‘big society’, and is music to the ears those who want to cut arts funding generated through taxation even further. One might conclude from Born’s work that the remoteness of the possibility that a UK or US government might ever give financial backing to similar institution should presumably be welcomed?
In general, in a lot of this work musical institutions are viewed very critically, but it is rare that industries – in many cases institutions funded by private capital rather than through taxation, as with much of the popular music industry – are subject to the same level of critique (as in Cottrell’s essay on ethnomusicology and the music industries). This is quite emblematic of an ideological phenomenon which some radical thinkers, including critics of cultural studies such as Todd Gitlin, Robert McChesney, Keith Tester or Joseph Heath, or anti-capitalist thinkers like Naomi Klein, have identified: whereby a superficial politics of ‘diversity’ is not so much a moderate call for a modification of capitalist society, but actually a means of giving new life and purpose to high capitalism, not least through the destruction (rather than reform) of existing social democratic institutions.
Similar views can be found in the writings of Nicholas Cook, in whose wider work one can encounter harsh criticism of the ‘disdain for the marketplace and its discourses’ in various European writers. When a French musicologist, Anne Boissière, criticised his Music: A Very Short Introduction for nihilism, his response was to accuse her of being part of ‘the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”’. Dismissing social democratic European thinkers by contrived association with the Nazis is one of the least edifying aspects of our profession.
Timothy Rice writes in his Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (2014)
Ethnomusicologists do not begin their research with a judgment about what they imagine is “good music” or “music worthy of study” or “music that has withstood the test of time.” Instead, they assume that whenever and wherever humans make and listen to music with the keen devotion and attention that they do, then something important and worthy of study is going on.
Elsewhere one can often find ethnomusicological rejection of aesthetic value judgement – how do those coming from such a position really mark compositions or performances?
Cook rejects aesthetic valorisation directing study, arguing that musicologists should instead, like sociologists, ‘study social reality as they find it’, so that ‘The point is not that Madonna is good or bad but that she’s there’. But to bracket out or otherwise marginalise anything which is not ‘there’ (assuming ‘there’ means something which has gained some degree of prominence, for otherwise everything is ‘there’) renders invisible that cultural work whose producers have been unable to garner public visibility. Only a belief that the market will always provide the most fair selection could legitimise musicologists and others neglecting all else.
In place of explicit aesthetic judgement, in this work and much new musicology one encounters politically and morally loaded characterisations which I believe serve principally to attempt to close down debate. I find it sad when musicology has moved from a position of intense interest in music to one of morally self-righteous judgement, which as I have written about elsewhere, I believe derives in part from a desire to dominate one’s subject, a charge which can be laid at the door of aspects of some other disciplines, including anthropology and psychoanalysis, as well.
There are numerous moral grounds with which some will condemn the ethnomusicological work and ideologies of Bartók, or some of the work upon which Finnissy draws. But to me the value of that work is palpable because of the vital creative composition which would not have been possible in the same way without it. The same is true of some of the amazing music which has come out of IRCAM: amongst which I would include Boulez’s Répons, Berio’s Chemins ex V, Aperghis’s Machinations, Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, Risset’s Inharmonique, Saariaho’s Verblendungen, Manoury’s Pluton, Dillon’s Introitus, Murail’s L’Esprit des dunes, Nunes’s Lichtung I & II, Dusapin’s To Be Sung, or Czernowin’s Hidden. Ultimately I do believe that the importance of this type of compositional work (and its performance) exceeds that of any musicology, ethno- or otherwise.
I will end with a reapplication of Marcel Mauss to this field of ethnomusicology itself. Its participants offer up endorsements for the right theorists, the right canonised and revered ethnomusicologists, the right political outlook, generally that sort of ‘consumerist multiculturalism’ which accords well with modern neo-liberalism, to those who are in a position of power above them, and are rewarded for this through promotion and research grants in a process of exchange. Collegiate relationships within hierarchical academic structures are made possible through this process of reciprocity. This may be an unfair caricature, but no more so than many of the analyses in this body of work.
ETHNOMUSICOLOGY OF WESTERN ART MUSIC
Robert Faulkner, ‘Orchestra Interaction: Some Features of Communication and Authority in an Artistic Organization’, Sociological Quarterly 14 (1973), pp. 147-157.
Catherine M. Cameron, ‘Dialectics in the Arts: Composer Ideology and Culture Change’ (PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, 1982). Modified version published as Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music (Westport, CO, and London: Praeger, 1996).
Christopher Small, ‘Performance as Ritual: Sketch for an Enquiry into the Nature of a Symphony Concert’, in Lost in Music: Culture, Style, and the Musical Event, edited Avron Levine White (London: Routledge, 1987), pp. 6-32.
Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
Marcia Herndon, ‘Cultural Engagement: The Case of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988), pp. 134-145.
Ruth Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Bruno Nettl, ‘Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture (An Essay in Four Movements)’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 21 (1989), pp. 1-16; republished in Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons edited Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 137-155.
Philip V. Bohlman, ‘Of Yekes and Chamber Music in Israel: Ethnomusicological Meaning in Western Music History’, in Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, edited Stephen Blum, Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettl (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 254-267.
Peter Jeffery, Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Tamara Elena Livingston, Community of music: an ethnographic seminar in Champaign-Urbana (Champaign, IL; Elephant & Cat, 1993)
Michael Chanan, Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism (New York: Verso, 1994).
Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the institutionalization of the musical avant-garde (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1995).
Vicky L. Brennan, ‘Chamber Music in the Barn: Tourism, Nostalgia, and the Reproduction of Social Class’, The World of Music 41/3 (1999), pp. 11-29.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, ‘Toward an Ethnomusicology of the Early Music Movement: Thoughts on Bridging Disciplines and Musical Worlds,’ Ethnomusicology 45 (2001), pp. 1-29.
Stephen Cottrell, Professional Music-Making in London: Ethnography and Experience (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘“Everybody Wants to be Pavarotti”: The Experience of Music for Performers and Audience at a Gilbert and Sullivan Festival,’ Journal of the Royal Musical Association 129 (2004), pp. 143-160.
Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘What Makes an Audience? Investigating the Roles and Experiences of Listeners at a Chamber Music Festival’, Music & Letters 86/2 (2005), pp. 257-269.
Jonathan Shull, ‘Locating the Past in the Present: Living Traditions and the Performance of Early Music’, Ethnomusicology Forum 15/1 (2006), pp. 87-111.
Pirkko Moisala, Kaija Saariaho (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
Frederick Seddon and Michele Biasutti, ‘A Comparison of Modes of Communication Between members of a String Quartet and a Jazz Quartet’, Psychology of Music 37 (2009), pp. 395-415.
Yara El-Ghadban. ‘Facing the Music: Rituals of Belonging and Recognition in Contemporary Western Art Music’, American Ethnologist 36/1 (2009), pp. 140-60.
Paul Chaikin, ‘Circling Opera in Berlin’ (PhD dissertation, Brown University, 2009).
Eric Martin Usner, ‘Cultural Practices of Classical Music in 21st Century Vienna’ (PhD dissertation, New York University, 2010).
Tina K. Ramnarine, ‘The Orchestration of Civil Society: Community and Conscience in Symphony Orchestras’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 327-351.
Melissa C. Dobson and Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘Classical Cult or Learning Community? Exploring New Audience Members’ Social and Musical Responses to First-time Concert Attendance’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 353-383.
Amanda Bayley, ‘Ethnographic Research into Contemporary String Quartet Rehearsal’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 385-411.
Eric Martin Usner, ‘‘The Condition of Mozart’: Mozart Year 2006 and the New Vienna’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 413-442.
Pirkko Moisala, ‘Reflections on an Ethnomusicological Study of a Contemporary Western Art Music Composer’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011).
Hettie Malcolmson, ‘Composing Individuals: Ethnographic Reflections on Success and Prestige in the British New Music Network’, twentieth-century music 10/1 (March 2013), pp. 115-136.
Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts (eds), Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Bruno Nettl, ‘A Technique of Ethnomusicology Applied to Western Culture’, Ethnomusicology, 7/3 (September 1963), pp. 221-224.
Fredric Lieberman, ‘Should Ethnomusicology Be Abolished?’, with responses by E. Eugene Helm and Claude Palisca, Journal of the College Music Society 17/2 (1977), pp. 198-206.
K.A. Gourlay, ‘Alienation and Ethnomusicology’, in The Ethnography of Musical Performance, edited Norma McLeod and Marcia Hendon (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1980), pp. 123-146.
Klaus Wachsmann, ‘Applying Ethnomusicological Methods to Western Art Music’, World of Music 23 (1981), pp. 74-86.
Marcia Herndon and Norma McLeod, Music as Culture (Darby, PA: Norwood, 1980).
Joseph Kerman, Musicology (London: Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 155-181.
Stephen Blum, ‘Ethnomusicology vis-à-vis the Contemporary Fallacies of Musical Life’, Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 8/3 (1986), pp. 1-19.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, ‘Crossing Boundaries in Music and Musical Scholarship: A Perspective from Ethnomusicology’, The Musical Quarterly 80/1 (1996), pp. 13-30.
Jonathan Stock, ‘New Musicologies, Old Musicologies: Ethnomusicology and the Study of Western Music’, Current Musicology 62 (1997), pp. 40-68.
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Musicology, Anthropology, History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, edited Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 31-44.
Henry Stobart (ed), The New (Ethno)musicologies (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008). Includes essays by Jim Samson, Michelle Bigenho, Fabian Holt, Nicholas Cook, Laudan Nooshin, Caroline Bithell, Tina K. Ramnarine, Philip V. Bohlman, John Baily, Martin Clayton, Abigail Wood, Jonathan P.J. Stock, Martin Stokes.
Stephen Cottrell, ‘Ethnomusicology and the Music Industries: An Overview’, Ethnomusicology Forum 19/1 (June 2010), pp. 3-25.
Georgina Born, ‘For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/2 (2010), pp. 205-243.
Laudan Nooshin (ed), ‘The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music’, special issue of Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011). Includes essays by Nooshin (‘Introduction: The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music’, pp. 285-300), Rachel Beckles Willson, Tina K. Ramnarine, Melissa C. Dobson and Stephanie Pitts, Amanda Bayley, Eric Usner, Pirkko Moisala (all listed above). Reprinted with an afterword by Philip V. Bohlman as The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
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