Newton Armstrong has recently featured on programmes on BBC Radio 3 and Radio Télévision Belge Francophone. In December, Armstrong was interviewed on a Radio 3 Music Matters feature programme on American composer Milton Babbitt, titled “Milton Babbitt: Changing the way we think about music.” Earlier this month, Armstrong was the subject of a profile feature on the RTBF programme “La touche contempo.”
The programmes can be streamed at the links below:
Three of the Music Department’s PhD candidates presented papers earlier this month at the joint Royal Musical Association/British Forum for Ethnomusicology annual conference for research students. The conference took place over three days at Canterbury Christ Church University, and had as its theme ‘Exploring Musical Practice’.
Contributions from City students spanned a broad range of specialisms, from composition and the study of film music to ethnographic research on music scenes. Elizabeth Black discussed her approach to conceptualising texture in instrumental composition, with particular attention to the work of Panayiotis Kokoras and his notion of holophony. Roya Arab traced a history of the female voice in Iranian film music, noting its complex and shifting relationships to ideas of permissibility and representation. And Sam Mackay examined the interface of musical culture and gentrification in a central neighbourhood of Marseille, arguing that the particular sonic and spatial mediations of public music-making can generate both solidarities and fantasies in a context of contested social change.
On Thursday January 19th and Friday January 20th, 2017, City, University of London is hosting a conference entitled Bright Futures, Dark Pasts: Michael Finnissy at 70. This will feature a range of scholarly papers on a variety of aspects of Finnissy’s work – including his use of musical objets trouvés, engagement with folk music, sexuality, the influence of cinema, relationship to other contemporary composers, issues of marginality, and his work in performance. There will be three concerts, featuring his complete works for two pianos and piano duet, played by the composer, Ian Pace, and Ben Smith; a range of solo, chamber and ensemble works; and a complete performance (from 14:00-21:00 on Friday 20th) of his epic piano cycle The History of Photography in Sound by Ian Pace. The concerts include the world premieres of Finnissy’s Zortziko (2009) for piano duet and Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) for solo piano, the UK premiere of Duet (1971-2013) and London premieres of Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) for piano duet, Derde symfonische etude (2013) for two pianos, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) for two pianos, and Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) for two pianos. There will also be a rare chance to hear Finnissy’s Sardinian-inspired Anninnia (1981-2) for voice and piano, for the first time in several decades.
Keynote speakers will be Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester), Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University, author of Homintern) and Ian Pace (City, University of London). The composer will be present for the whole event, and will perform and be interviewed by Christopher Fox (Brunel University) on his work and the History in particular.
The composer and photographer Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, who studied with Finnissy between 2000 and 2004, has created a photographic work, continuum simulacrum (2016-17) inspired by The History of Photography in Sound and particularly Chapter 6 (Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets). The series will be shown on screens in the department and samples of a book version will be available.
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).
The full programme can be viewed below. This conference also brings to a close Ian Pace’s eleven-concert series of the complete piano works of Finnissy.
A separate blog post will follow on The History of Photography in Sound.
All events take place at the Department of Music, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB.
Thursday January 19th, 2017
09:00-09:30 Room AG09. Registration and TEA/COFFEE.
09:30-10:00 Performance Space.
Introduction and tribute to Michael Finnissy by Ian Pace and Miguel Mera (Head of Department of Music, City, University of London).
10:00-12:00 Room AG09. Chair: Aaron Einbond.
Larry Goves (Royal Northern College of Music), ‘Michael Finnissy & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the composer as anthropologist’.
Maarten Beirens (Amsterdam University), ‘Questioning the foreign and the familiar: Interpreting Michael Finnissy’s use of traditional and non-Western sources’
Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University), ‘The Medium is Now the Material: The “Folklore” of Chris Newman and Michael Finnissy’.
Followed by a roundtable discussion between the three speakers and composer and Finnissy student Claudia Molitor (City, University of London), chaired by Aaron Einbond.
12:00-13:00 Foyer, Performance Space.
13:10–14:15 Performance Space.
Concert 1: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (10). Michael Finnissy, Ian Pace and Ben Smith play Finnissy’s works for two pianos or four hands.
Michael Finnissy, Wild Flowers (1974) (IP/MF)
Michael Finnissy, Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Derde symfonische etude (2013) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Deux jeunes se promènent à travers le ciel 1920 (2008) (IP/BS)
Michael Finnissy, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) (IP/MF) (UK premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) (IP/MF) (London premiere)
14:30-15:30 Room AG09. Chair: Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University).Keynote: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester): ‘Articulating, Dwelling, Travelling: Michael Finnissy and Marginality’.
15:30-16:00 Foyer, Performance Space.
16:00-17:00 Room AG09. Chair: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester).
Keynote: Ian Pace (City, University of London): ‘Michael Finnissy between Jean-Luc Godard and Dennis Potter: appropriation of techniques from cinema and TV’
17:00-18:00 Room AG09. Chair: Christopher Fox (Brunel University).
Roundtable on performing the music of Michael Finnissy. Participants: Neil Heyde (cellist), Ian Pace (pianist), Jonathan Powell (pianist), Christopher Redgate (oboist), Roger Redgate (conductor, violinist), Nancy Ruffer (flautist).
19:00 Performance Space.
Concert 2: City University Experimental Ensemble (CUEE), directed Tullis Rennie. Christopher Redgate, oboe/oboe d’amore; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Bernice Chitiul, voice; Alexander Benham, piano; Michael Finnissy, piano; Ian Pace, piano; Ben Smith; piano.
Michael Finnissy, Yso (2007) (CUEE)
Michael Finnissy, Stille Thränen (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith)
Michael Finnissy, Runnin’ Wild (1978) (Christopher Redgate)
Michael Finnissy, Anninnia (1981-82) (Bernice Chitiul, Ian Pace)
Michael Finnissy, Ulpirra (1982-83) (Nancy Ruffer)
Michael Finnissy, Pavasiya (1979) (Christopher Redgate)
‘Mini-Cabaret’: Michael Finnissy, piano
Chris Newman, AS YOU LIKE IT (1981)
Michael Finnissy, Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) (World première)
Andrew Toovey, Where are we in the world? (2014)
Laurence Crane, 20th CENTURY MUSIC (1999)
Matthew Lee Knowles, 6th Piece for Laurence Crane (2006)
Morgan Hayes, Flaking Yellow Stucco (1995-6)
Tom Wilson, UNTIL YOU KNOW (2017) (World première)
Howard Skempton, after-image3 (1990)
Michael Finnissy, Zortziko (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith) (World première)
Michael Finnissy, Duet (1971-2013) (Ben Smith, Ian Pace) (UK première)
Michael Finnissy, ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’, from Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88) (Alexander Benham)
Michael Finnissy, APRÈS-MIDI DADA (2006) (CUEE)
21:30 Location to be confirmed
Friday January 20th, 2017
10:00-11:00 Room AG21.
Christopher Fox in conversation with Michael Finnissy on The History of Photography in Sound.
11:00-11:30 Room AG21.
11:30-12:30 Room AG21. Chair: Alexander Lingas (City, University of London).
Keynote: Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University): ‘My “personal themes”?!’: Finnissy’s Seventeen Homosexual Poets and the Material World’.
14:00-21:00 Performance Space.
Concert 3: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (11): The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2002). Ian Pace, piano
14:00 Chapters 1, 2: Le démon de l’analogie; Le réveil de l’intraitable realité.
15:15 Chapters 3, 4: North American Spirituals; My parents’ generation thought War meant something
19:35 Chapters 9, 10, 11: Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur; Unsere Afrikareise; Etched Bright with Sunlight.
What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs; they are therefore more liberal, less fanatical, but also more ‘false’ (less ‘authentic’) – something we translate, in ordinary consciousness, by the avowal of an impression of nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent), from which can rise, here and there, only the cry of anarchisms, marginalisms, and individualisms: let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation).
Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.
Such are the two ways of the Photography. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.
Ce qui caractérise les sociétés dites avancées, c’est que ces sociétés consomment aujourd’hui des images, et non plus, comme celles d’autrefois, des croyances; elles sont donc plus libérales, moins fanataiques, mais aussi plus «fausses» (moins «authentiques») – chose que nous traduisons, dans la conscience courante, par l’aveu d’une impression d’ennui nauséeux, comme si l’image, s’universalisant, produisait un monde sans differences (indifferent), d’où ne peut alors surgir ici et là que le cri des anarchismes, marginalismes et individualismes : abolissons les images, sauvons le Désir immédiat (sans mediation).
Folle ou sage? La Photographie peut être l’un ou l’autre : sage si son réalisme reste relative, tempére par des habitudes esthétiques ou empiriques (feuilleter une revue chez le coiffeur, le dentist); folle, si ce réalisme est absolu, et, si l’on peut dire, original, faisant revenir à la conscience amoureuse et effrayée la letter même du Temps : movement proprement révulsif, qui retourne le cours de la chose, et que l’appellerai pour finir l’extase photographique.
Telles sont les deux voies de la Photographie. A moi de choisir, de soumettre son spectacle au code civilise des illusions parfaits, ou d’affronter en elle le réveil de l’intraitable réalité.
Roland Barthes, Le chambre claire/Camera Lucida.
Eadweard Muybridge – A. Throwing a Disk, B: Ascending a Step, C: Walking from Animal Locomotion (1885-1887).
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).
This autumn, the Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum was held in a new, and fitting, location – the music department at SOAS. On Monday 7th November, we were treated to a full day of papers covering a fascinating range of topics, as well as some fantastic live performances. Thematically, the research presented tackled a wide range of ethnomusicological issues. Several papers dealt with the intersection of music and various contemporary political issues affecting the region, whereas others focussed directly on musical content itself, including improvisation, modes and recording techniques. Others still looked to the past; we were treated to some fascinating historical insights, and even listened to a band take itself back in time!
Geographically, we began in Morocco, the most westerly country featured at the conference. The first speaker, Cristina Morena Almeida (King’s College, London), woke us up with her opening presentation, entitled ‘“Sell Everything except yourself”: understanding the backlash against rappers’ involvement in organised political campaigns’. Cristina’s thought-provoking work was followed by Ilana Webster-Kogen’s (SOAS) fascinating account of the music of Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants across the Middle East, which provided a great insight into her ethnographic work in Israel and the Arabian Gulf.
After the break, co-convenor Laudan Nooshin (City) posed much food for thought with her paper entitled ‘Whose liberation? Iranian popular music and the fetishisation of resistance’. After a lively and fruitful discussion, we were treated to a roundtable with the Oxford Maqam ensemble, featuring Martin Stokes, Yara Abou-El-Fadi and Tarik Bashir. The ensemble has recently undertaken a fascinating wax cylinder recording project; it was hard to tell the difference between recordings dating from the 1900s and their recent output! After discussing the technical and contextual aspects of their work, they played one of their recorded songs live for us; a surreal comparison.
Unfortunately, Julian Harris (King’s College, London) was unwell and unable to attend. Julian’s paper was entitled “Ta’abiriya: ‘expressionism’ in Arab music: composition in the Iraqi school of ‘oud”, and happily for the audience, Professor Owen Wright (SOAS) kindly offered an impromptu talk on the topic. Continuing with the ‘oud theme, Baha Yetkin then presented his work, entitled “Ottoman-Turkish improvisation on the Turkish-style ‘oud”. Baha deftly demonstrated the music he analysed in his paper on his ‘oud, which was highly educational for those not as well versed in Turkish music theory.
After an afternoon break for tea and coffee, John O’Connell (Cardiff University) discussed issues pertaining to Turkish nationalism in the early 20th Century, and enlightened us about the mystical, imagined land of ‘Turan’. To round off the papers, Erum Naqvi’s (Pratt Institute, New York) examination of Iranian classical concerts in the past and present both complemented and contrasted with Laudan’s earlier presentation.
After a fascinating day filled with information and discussions, many of us went straight down to the SOAS union to grab a well-deserved drink, before returning for a performance by Maya Youssef’s Middle East Ensemble, based at SOAS. For the best part of an hour, her deft qanun playing mesmerised and moved us. She was accompanied by darbuka, violin and vocals, playing a mixture of her own original compositions and classics from across the Arab world, including the music of Lebanese singer Fairuz and Syrian-Egyptian ‘oud player and composer Farid al-Atrash.
Thank you to all our speakers, performers and audience members for attending and contributing; additional thanks to Rachel Harris for organising and chairing.
Earlier this month – from Saturday 3rd to Monday 5th September – the Royal Musical Association held its annual conference at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. This is the largest annual gathering of musicologists in the UK and City University staff and recent alumni were well represented. On the Sunday, new City lecturer Claudia Molitor spoke on a panel entitled ’Site and Sound: Practice-Based Explorations of Music and Space’, presenting a paper on one of her recent compositions, Sonorama, an audio work for the train journey between London St Pancras and Margate which offers sounds and voices for the otherwise silent view from the train. Speaking on the same day, Miguel Mera’s paper, ’The Comedy of Audio-Visual Musicality’, was part of a panel on the topic of ‘Music and Musician on Screen’. Laudan Nooshin present on a panel sponsored by the British Forum for Ethnomusicology on ‘Music in Contested Urban Space’. Her paper explored the ways in which the city of Tehran is represented, imagined and claimed through the music videos of Iranian hip-hop artist Hichkas. On Monday 5th , Ian Pace presented a paper on a panel organised by the RMA Music and/as Process Study Group on ‘Creative Performance Processes as Research’. His paper was entitled ‘Between Academia and Audiences: Some Critical and Methodological Reflections from a Performer-Scholar’. Also presenting at the conference was recent PhD alumnus, Liam Cagney, who is now teaching at University College Dublin. His paper was entitled ‘Ensemble L’Itineraire’s Role in the Establishment of French Spectral Music.
The photos below show City staff in action at the conference:
Following the earlier reports on the ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’ debate (see here, here, and also here), here are the position statements from the debate given by Michael Spitzer and Ian Pace (the version read by the latter was abridged from the below). That by Laudan Nooshin can be read here.
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 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
Below can be found 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 who 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 Shelamay’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 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.
“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 theirexclusive 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’sPluton, 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).
We’re delighted to announce that PhD student Stephen Wilford has been awarded an Early Career Research Fellowship by the Institute of Musical Research (IMR) for the 2016-17 academic year.
Stephen will be based in the Department of Music at City University London and will be working with Dr Laudan Nooshin (Reader in Music) on a project entitled ‘Music and Digital Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa’. The project, which is also being funded by the Research Office at City University London through their Pump Priming scheme, will examine the role of digital technologies (particularly the Internet) in the changing cultural landscape of the region. Their work will examine how the Internet facilities the sharing of music in different contexts and across various platforms, and will have a particular focus on how this shapes ideas of public and private spaces across the region. The IMR will provide funding to run a networking conference within the Department of Music, with the aim of bringing together scholars from different disciplines and institutions who share an interest in contemporary digital cultures in the Middle East and North Africa. The networking event will be run in late 2016/early 2017, and further details will be announced over the coming months.
The University of Cambridge was the (somewhat unlikely) setting for the UK’s first major academic conference on hip hop, hosted by Wolfson and St John’s Colleges (23rd – 25th June). Adopting the title ‘It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” (a line from Eric B. and Rakim’s seminal track ‘In the Ghetto’), the conference brought together scholars from across the UK, USA, and around the world, and opened up debates on the place of hip hop within the academy. Keynote addresses were given by prominent hip hop scholars Murray Forman (Northeastern University) and Tricia Rose (Brown University), who spoke respectively about issues of age and generation in relation to hip hop, and the state of contemporary hip hop scholarship.
The conference also featured papers from staff and students from the Department of Music at City University London. Dr Laudan Nooshin discussed the ways in which Iranian rappers imagine and represent the city of Tehran. She provided examples through the videos of Iranian rappers, and engaged in dialogue with Reveal, a London-based Iranian rapper who was chairing the session. PhD student Miranda Crowdus presented her work as part of the same panel, and her paper considered the negotiation of spaces and identities in southern Tel Aviv, through contrasting examples of local hip hop. Earlier in the day, fellow PhD student Stephen Wilford presented a paper on Franco-Algerian hip hop, examining the ways in which musicians and artists have employed hip hop to engage with socio-political issues, and to construct a triangulated relationship between France, Algeria and the USA.
The conference included performances and panels involving a range of hip hop practitioners, and concluded with a session on the relationship of hip hop to contemporary education, within both schools and universities.
The position statements provided by Nooshin and Pace have been placed online: Nooshin’s is here, and Pace’s is here. Pace is preparing a longer article on the subject, and both these protagonists may at some point respond more directly to the other’s arguments.
The debate was filmed, and this will be placed online presently. Here are two accounts/responses, from City MA Music student Rachel Cunniffe, and City graduate Ben Smith.
Rachel Cunniffe, Debate: ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’
On Wednesday 1st June, as part of the music department’s year-long 40th anniversary celebrations and the City Summer Sounds Festival, the first of three public debates was held in the performance space. The motion was based upon the famous suggestion made by Nicholas Cook in 2008 that due to blurring boundaries between musicology and ethnomusicology, “we are all ethnomusicologists now.” The questioning of this assertion, accompanied by discussion of tensions which remain between the two disciplines to the present day led to an interesting and heated debate.
The event was chaired by Alexander Lingas (City University), and the panel was comprised of Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), Tore Lind (University of Copenhagen), Laudan Nooshin (City University), Ian Pace (City University) and Michael Spitzer (University of Liverpool). Taking to the microphone in alphabetical order, Amanda Bayley was the first speaker. She noted the importance of understanding music as a social creative practice, and the achievements of the ethnomusicological discipline in examining what music can tell us about the world through its interdisciplinary approach. Amanda also advocated Cook’s suggestion of an ‘intercultural musicology’ which would encompass a greater interaction between ethnomusicology and music history. Finally, drawing from her ethnographic study of a String Quartet rehearsal in 2011, Amanda noted how ethnographic approaches can also contribute to understanding the history of music and music pedagogy.
Tore Lind then spoke of the ways in which ethnographic results may come with a degree of unreliability, yet interaction with participants and gathering a range of views will undoubtedly provide greater insight to the topic in question. He also suggested that while he is ‘an accomplice’ in the construction of the musical realities he presents, this does not deem the work invalid or unreliable as musical knowledge is socially generated. Laudan Nooshin followed this with a discussion of the difficulties in defining ethnomusicology, its complex identity and history, and the exclusion of other sub-disciplines in music through the creation of this binary, such as music education or popular music studies. Laudan also presented some ethnographic work which had been undertaken for this debate; some participants felt the boundaries have blurred significantly though some considered prejudice and exclusion towards ethnomusicologists to remain. She concluded by noting that many musicologists have been attracted to and utilised ethnomusicological approaches in their work, mentioned the increasing number of ethnomusicologists being hired in music education and the expanding role of ethnomusicology in the curriculum, and finally suggested that in place of criticism scholars of both disciplines should consider how elements of each discipline can enrich the other.
Next, Ian Pace discussed issues surrounding the ethnomusicology of Western Art Music, many of which will be expanded upon in a forthcoming article. He expressed concerns for the subsumation of musicology into other disciplines, as a result of the multi-disciplinary and sparsely ‘musical’ approaches of ethnomusicology. The lack of attention paid to the actual sound material in much ethnomusicological work, Ian argued, is also contributing to the deskilling of the profession and therefore questions whether the descriptive nature of this work has a place in high level scholarship. Ian also noted that ethnomusicology should not be devoid of critique for political reasons. Finally, Michael Spitzer asserted that Cook may have been optimistic in his statement, and claimed that musicology has come under attack for its ‘inadequate [analysis of] social mediation.’ To this he responded with the question, what’s wrong with formalism and the analysis of sound? Michael concluded by criticising the ‘zero-sum game’ which he claimed to still exist between ethnomusicology and musicology.
Presentations were followed by questions from the floor, which ignited much lively discussion. Passion and enthusiasm for the topic was clear, and one audience member fittingly concluded the evening by thanking the music department at City University for hosting a forum in which these issues can be discussed.
Ben Smith, ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists now?’
In what was an interesting and lively evening, with a number of intriguing points brought up by the panel members, I would like to detail and comment upon the wider implications of three particular ideas which resonated strongly with me. These were: A defence of formalism from Michael Spitzer, and Ian Pace’s critique of what he called ‘musicology-without-ears’ and the implications of non-critical musicology towards Western Art Music and commercial pop music.
In bemoaning the fear of formalism within ethnomusicological work, Spitzer spoke convincingly about the importance of musical analysis, outside the consideration of social or cultural context. Bringing in some Pierre Schaeffer as to how certain modes of listening can move towards bracketing out real-world elements of music (that is, the music’s sign-content, so that we may consider the ‘inside of the sound’), he said how, if we wish to move closer to a deep understanding of musical content and musical structure in-and-of-itself, we obviously must consider the object of study on its own terms. Rather than making a case for or against the possibility of total musical autonomy (and the implications of this for musical scholarship) formal music analysis can be simply seen as one crucial element of a multi-faceted toolkit required to consider a musical work in its totality. The removal of formalist approaches to musical analysis does not realise any liberal vision of negating some out-of-date approach to ‘great works’, and the opening up of the musicological discipline to consider the music of the masses, but rather only achieves in bracketing out an invaluable musicological skill.
Linked to the worrying attitude to formalism Spitzer mentioned is the unquestioned assumption that an autonomous consideration of music is impossible. It is clear where the canonic figures of ethnomusicology stand on this matter (Pace quoted John Blacking and Bruno Nettl in his talk); and that music is utterly inseparable from culture has been taken as dogma by many later writers. This received wisdom towards musical autonomy has had a grave result for the amount and quality of musical considerations proper within ethnomusicology, resulting in what Pace categorized as ‘musicology-without-ears’.
In his talk, Pace touched on a number of reasons as to the disappearance of critical thought and consideration of the music itself in certain ethnomusicological writings. One possible reason given was that western, post-colonial guilt acts as an inhibitor to critical engagement (something that becomes more troublesome – not to mention redundant – when applied to non-colonial music). This misguided liberal notion creates differing intensities of critique, depending on whether the object studied is deemed ‘elitist’ (read: Western Art Music) or ‘ethnic’ (or popular). Scholars, increasingly aware of the play of social power relations, are all too worried of the implications of appearing ‘ivory towered’ and delivering proclamations against ‘low culture’ from on high. Although I would not want to remove a needed sensitivity from academic discourse, such liberal treatment can in fact serve to patronize the so-called minority culture being studied. It suggests some cultures should not be subject to the same scrutiny as others; that there can be no universals. The over-careful handling of other musical cultures and cultural practices does them, and their practitioners, a disservice.
Writers such as Kenin Malik, Amartya Sen, and Slavoj Žižek have pointed out how the kind of multicultural liberalism described above can not only be condescending, but also paradoxically aligned with right-wing thought. Malik writes that both ideologies similarly ‘see cultures, or civilizations, as homogenous entities. Both insist on the crucial importance of cultural identity and on the preservation of such identity. Both perceive irresolvable conflicts arising from incommensurate values.’ Žižek has said the same, but frames it in another way: Political differences become cultural differences, not to be overcome or challenged, but simply ‘tolerated’.
Alongside post-colonial guilt (or the latent racism Malik and Žižek allude to) is, I believe, a sentimental primitivism. An interesting political example of this is the figure of the ‘crying Indian’ which gained prominence in the 1970s. Essentially rehashing Romantic notions of the ‘noble savage’, this hippy trope defined Native Americans as a symbol of a ‘pure’ lost humanism, mythically connected to and in harmony with the world. In fact, studies over the last few years have shown that widespread de-forestation and the hunting-to-extinction of various animals by early Native American tribes occurred on a scale that greatly exceeded the practices of the colonial settlers. Similar primitivism in ethnomusicological work is not hard to find (here is Steven Feld on his work with the Kaluli tribe of Papua New Guinea): ‘With characteristic patience, Jubi [Feld’s native helper] was imitating calls, behavior, and nesting. Suddenly something snapped: I asked a question and Jubi blurted back, “Listen – to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.”’ This primitivist aspect of ethnography also contributes to the removal of proper musical consideration, as the music itself is romanticized as well as the people creating it. The musical object is firstly deemed untouchable, and further, any element of the ‘sound itself’ which provokes a response in us is deemed ineffable. In a kind of postmodern turn back towards romanticism, the articulation of ‘how’ music works is seen as ultimately impossible to understand, and if so, why bother trying?
Malik has written extensively on the history of multiculturalism, particularly in Britain. One of his descriptions of the reasoning behind such cultural turns in left–wing thought is worth quoting at length, as it drives right at the heart of issues mentioned above:
‘To be radical today is to display disenchantment with all that is ‘Western’ — by which most mean modernism and the ideas of the Enlightenment — in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’. The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world…is now widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as oppressive…In place of [a]…progressive universalism…contemporary Western societies have embraced a form of nihilistic multiculturalism.’
Putting the point even more plainly, Sen has suggested a more apt name for multiculturalism as it stands would be ‘plural monoculturalism’, since multicultural ideas and policies can serve only to increase the isolation between different people and cultures. This is precisely what so much ethnomusicological study does – in treating the studied musical culture with a patronizing reverence and refusing to delve into the substance of the music itself, it ‘others’ the culture in question even more strongly. The multicultural aim to break down the walls of musical formalism and academic elitism, actually creates a greater distance between the academic and the people studied. As Ben Watson points out: ‘replacing musicology with social anthropology (Georgina Born) or sociology (Sarah Thornton) actually drives thought and its object still further apart’. Watson extends this argument, specifically dealing with commercial pop music, by noting how the turn away from academic ‘elitism’ is not only misguided, but redolent with scholarly pitfalls:
‘In the same moment that it claims to ‘break down cultural barriers’, the sociological turn reproduces a class division between the analytical academic and the musical culture ‘out there’. Appeals to the ‘popular’ promise to solve the ‘elitism’ of classical music, but actually reproduce it. What is confusing is that the opposite of the ‘popular’ is concealed: this is because it is the very discourse employed by the analyst. Analysts may declare that they ‘really like’ the music under consideration – Abba’s ‘Fernando’ or The Adverts’ ‘One Chord Wonders’ – but they also speak a meta-language that stands above pop music and its audience. The guilt of intellectual privilege is not to be wished away by changing the object of scrutiny.’
When no serious substitute is suggested for analysis (or consideration of sound), its removal from scholarly work leaves a black hole, often filled with empty jargon, and an approach that sidesteps value judgements at all costs does nothing but allow for the unchallenged stagnation of culture. Across all scholarship, it is worrying when critical perspectives disappear, but, as mentioned above, this problem is amplified when dealing with western music, and particularly so with commercial pop music. With the latter, since the object of study lies within a market-controlled industry, studies that fail to incorporate a proper dialectical critique, can end up essentially perpetuating the hegemonic economic forces which make up in the background socio-cultural structures of such music.
Focus Group Musicology and The Pop Industry
The movement away from a so-called academic elitism shares parallels with the turn towards populist politics under Bill Clinton and New Labour in the 1990s (what Adam Curtis describes as a politics by ‘focus group’). Pace touched upon the ethnomusicological adoption of this, mentioning the long quotations from less-than-expert sources (often little more than cherry-picked vox pops) found in a lot of ethnographic work he had read, which the authors used as evidence to form scholarly conclusions.
As well as determining what people thought on various issues of the day, politics by focus group also played a part in deciding the issues themselves, that is, populism became a yardstick for measuring political importance. The same has become true in some academic work. Pace made mention of a telling quote from Nicholas Cook in this regard, in which Cook argues that musicologists should ‘study social reality as they find it’: ‘The point is not that Madonna is good or bad but that she’s there’. Surely it should be obvious that treating any object as somehow valuable simply because it exists is a worryingly regressive formulation, and blindly panders to market forces. This, deeply negative, cultural effect of combining a populist approach with the study of commercial pop music is symptomatic of a more general problem with postmodern thought. Terry Eagleton notes that: ‘Postmodernism, among other things, concerns the cherishing of cultural difference; it is therefore an irony beyond anything flaunted by its own fictions that it is now actively contributing to the remorseless cultural homogenization of the globe’.
And so, with some pop music scholarship, the structural problems of ethnomusicological study detailed above become layered with the further complication of an uncritical openness towards the objects of study. This can be coupled with (I will expand upon this below) a fetishization of musical products as commodities, which divorces them from historical context, and fails again to critique the cultural and economic forces that surround the music.
In Performing Rites, Simon Frith writes positively(!) that pop music ‘holds consumption at the moment of desire, before it is regretted’; that its ever repeating novelty has nothing to do with the recycling of commercial trends cynically employed by record companies, but simply that it is a ‘momentary diversion’ from the real world (amusingly, a search for the word ‘neoliberal’ throughout the book comes up empty). Indeed, a concluding line of Frith’s, that music allows us to ‘live in the present tense’ is a relegation of musical function to pure escapism. This is to say that the great thing about music is only that is stops us worrying – or even thinking about – our outside existence. By utterly ignoring the effect of the market on the consumer, and allowing music simply to function as ‘the negation of everyday life’, Frith misses so much of the social totality of the hegemonic culture which has such an insidious effect on the production and (trigger warning: value judgement) quality of much commercial music. Read even more unfavourably, Frith’s ‘present tense’ analogy can be equated to pure commodity fetishism (compare it with Walter Benjamin’s term Jetztzeit (now-time), used to criticise the ossified experience of commodity capitalism). This fetishization of the present in Frith creates a system of thought that cannot engage in a dialectic way with the innate temporality of history.
In another article entitled ‘What Is Bad Music?’, Frith displays his post-colonial /multicultural /postmodernist attitude proudly. Against the insinuation of his provocative title, Frith is quick to move far away from any qualitative judgement of music, writing that ‘bad’ can only be defined according to individual truths; which form part of one’s own ‘fandom’ of any particular brand of music. He describes, for instance, how some on the left decry the misogyny and homophobia of some rap music (without further comment) along with a few other examples, before shifting the focus onto how ‘badness’ is ‘performed’ differently by various musico-social groups, as if to suggest that homophobia and misogyny are concerns purely for ‘the left’ to worry about. It is precisely the kind of thinking of the ‘plural monoculturalist’ Sen and Malik describe. This is (but one example of) the kind of scholarship which sees all cultures as equal, but not all humans. Surely the inverse position is true.
On May 11th 2016, Professor Ellen Waterman (School of Music, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada) presented a research seminar in the Music Department at City entitled: ‘Wilderness isn’t What It Used to Be: The ecology of experimental music performance in Canada’.
Professor Waterman has spent the 2015-16 academic year based at the University of Cambridge and spoke to us about her work.
Could you tell us a little about your research to date and what you’re working on at the moment?
I have four main research interests: artistic research (as an improvising flutist/vocalist), ethnography of contemporary music performance, sound (especially sound in performance environments), and critical studies in improvisation.
My current book project is a comparative ethnography of twelve experimental music festivals from across Canada covering the decade between 2003 and 2013. It’s called Sounds Provocative: The Ecology of Experimental Music Performance in Canada and it sets out to do two things: 1) to explore the fascinating range of experimental music practices found in Canada; 2) to develop a theory of the ecology of musical performance. For the latter, I’m bringing together ideas from performance studies with ecosystems theory and acoustic ecology. I’ve created a research website at www.sonicecology.com which includes quite a lot of performance video, interviews, and short essays as well as links to other writing I’ve done on this project.
I gather you’re involved in a large improvisation project. Could you talk about that?
The International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation – or IICSI – is funded by a Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It is a partnered institute among six universities (University of Guelph, McGill University, Memorial University of Newfoundland, University of Regina, University of British Columbia and the University of California, Santa Barbara) plus one foundation partner (Musagetes).
IICSI grew out of the vision of Ajay Heble, a scholar, musician, and artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival. Simply put, the impetus behind critical improvisation studies is the idea that musical improvisation (and by extension improvisation in other performing arts) has important things to tell us about broader social organization and ethical relations. As our project description states:
‘As a form of musical practice, improvisation embodies real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration. Musical improvisation can be considered not simply as a musical form, but, perhaps more urgently, as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body. The International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is a central source for the collection and dissemination of research on the social implications of improvisational practices.’ http://www.mun.ca/music/research/iicsi.php
For the past decade, together with an international team of 58 scholars and musicians from 20 institutions worldwide, and over 30 community partners (from music festivals to grassroots social welfare organizations) we have participated in building the now established field of critical studies in improvisation. IICSI’s mandate is “to create positive social change through the confluence of improvisational arts, innovative scholarship, and collaborative action.” Our work is organized around three main research topics:
Improvisation as Practice-Based Research
Improvisation, Community Health, and Social Responsibility
Improvisation, Intermediality, and Experimental Technologies
We run an annual postdoctoral fellowship competition, and hold colloquia and workshops across our sites in addition to projects with our community partners.
Are you active as a performer as well?
Yes! I’ve never seen much of a distinction between my work as a performer and my scholarship since both require creativity and critical reflection. Among other things, I perform in ~spin~ a duo for flute/voice and live electronics and sound diffusion with James Harley, and in Talisman, a duo with electric guitarist Andrew Staniland. In recent years I’ve begun working with Sundanese gamelan, particularly the suling.
How has your year in the UK been and what have you enjoyed most?
I’ve had a fantastic experience living and working at Robinson College, University of Cambridge this year. Beyond the rich array of people, concerts, talks, conferences etc., I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed the beautiful English countryside and the long, glorious spring! Playing with the University of Cambridge Gamelan Society has also been a highlight.