Thinking outside the (music) box

Li Yuan qushui better

In studying any socially-grounded human activity such as Chinese ritual, those with an interest in soundscape (which, after all, is the basis of ritual performance) may feel pigeonholed, marginalized. And I’m not alone in resisting the categorization of “ethnomusicologist” (for an accessible overview of the field, see Nettl).

Michelle Bigenho reflects cogently on the issue in her chapter

“Why I’m not an ethnomusicologist”

in the stimulating volume

  • Henry Stobart (ed.), The New (Ethno)musicologies (Scarecrow Press, 2008).

I take her words to heart. As she writes,

I resist being classified as an ethnomusicologist because the label often inadvertently carries with it certain assumptions. Under the label “ethnomusicologist,” “music” becomes my object of study, and I am then expected to musically map the geographic area of my purported expertise, an expectation that clings to a notion of bounded, discrete cultures tied to specifically grounded places. When music becomes the object and geographic mapping becomes the project, many compelling anthropological and theoretical questions are swept to the sidelines. Many ethnomusicologists are working beyond and outside of these two problematic assumptions, but the discipline’s institutional affiliations often inhibit its ability to move beyond these conceptualizations of “culture.” Furthermore, the ethnomusicologist label also carries with it expectations about a researcher’s position as a participating musician. While this point is usually held up as a particular strength of ethnomusicology, to privilege “doing music” over other kinds of fieldwork participation is to play into Western ideologies about music, talent, giftedness etc.—all points that should be under anthropological scrutiny rather than assumed as givens.
I contend that even though maintaining the idea of music participation as a special realm of ethnographic work may have its benefits, such framings also have significant drawbacks. All forms of fieldwork participation are different and unique, but constructing music participation as a privileged realm works hand in hand with an ethnocentric ideology that affords music an autonomous space. Emerging from very powerful ideologies about music in Western society, the awe factor cuts two ways—amazement at the imagined talented colleague who “does music too,” and a tendency to assume that one cannot fully understand work on music without being a musician. While anthropologists seem to be quite adept at opening their minds to absorb complex specialized information about kinship or linguistics, strong ideologies about musical knowledge, who has access to it, and who is empowered to speak about it, shape their open-ness to hear about musical details of ethnographic work. The apologetic “I’m not a musician, so…” seems to be invoked in a peculiar way. I suggest that anthropologists might heed Michael Herzfeld’s suggestion that we learn proficiency in other expressive modes beyond what is usually expected in terms of language training (2001:280).

Not everyone who learns Quechua as a fieldwork language ends up speaking it fluently, but having studied it at all is considered one of the many ways to struggle toward an anthropological understanding. I think more supposed “non-musicians” should be learning proficiencies in music and writing about social life through the lens of music.
When music participation is claimed as a privileged form of ethnographic experience the claim plays into hidden Western ideologies about talent and giftedness (see Kingsbury 1988), about music as an autonomous sphere, and about experience and personhood.

Bigenho unpacks the assumptions of insider and outsider status, as well as the constraints of academic disciplines and area studies.

Anthropologists may admire their colleague who does music, but along with that admiration come ideas about an imposed insider-ship and the suspicion that one may be having too much fun to do anything of theoretical significance. Herzfeld calls attention to how anthropologists suspect media as a legitimate area of inquiry because of media’s associations with pleasure (2001:312). Similarly, music—unless it is closely allied with linguistic anthropology (see Feld and Fox 1994)—may be seen as a realm of too much pleasure, a realm from which substantive theoretical contributions are imagined to rarely emerge.
When anthropologists present work with intricate details of kinship, linguistics, and the law, these details are not the object of analysis, but rather the lenses through which to examine broader cultural questions. When people call me an ethnomusicologist, music implicitly becomes the object of my studies; the practice of music-making becomes my work; and I am immediately imagined on conference panels with others who “do music,” even though I feel much more in dialogue with scholars focussing on anthropologies of nationalism, the State, indigeneity, and embodied experience. Even though ethnomusicologists have worked on these themes, music still overwhelms ethnomusicology’s project. Like it or not, external perspectives and institutional demands (more below) on ethnomusicology still construct music as the discipline’s central object, and this construction, because of powerful Western ideologies about music, remains at odds with one of ethnomusicology’s major projects (at least as I understand it): to move music out of the autonomous space afforded it by Western-centered musicology. Michelle Kisliuk argued the same point from a different angle, underscoring the problem of analyzing music as a separate entity when in many contexts there is no such conceptualization of “music” (1998:313; also see Herzfeld 2001:280). Ethnomusicology may benefit from a closer positioning with musicology and a focus on specific questions of music practice—a positioning where ethnomusicology might wield a productive influence over transformations within the older and usually dominant of the two disciplines. But when music is taken as the object or when music practices are privileged over other kinds of fieldwork participation, “music” begins to get in the way of questions that could be of interest to both anthropologists and ethnomusicologists.
Most of my courses do not have “music” in the title because the questions I find most compelling are about embodiment, the politics of sensory  perceptions, the politics of pleasure, nationalism and indigenous representations, ideas of property, national patrimony, and performance in social life.

music box

She concludes:

I have found it useful to think outside the “music” box. My work through music evokes questions about the politics of perception, the politics of authenticity, ideas of property, processes of folklorization, the pleasures of viewing/listening to Others etc. (Bigenho 2002; Bigenho 2005). Participation in music performance led me to these broader questions, but I resist claiming a privileged position for this kind of ethnographic participation. Like many anthropologists, I am engaged in the practice of  participant-observation, a problematic methodology of ethnographic fieldwork, no matter how you slice it. Oh yes… and I “do music” too, and I usually have a great deal of fun doing it.

As we get to grips with Chinese ritual performance in changing society, all this should strike a chord (in this case, the organum of the sheng mouth-organ and the heterophony of the voices and instruments in long slow hymns at the ritual site!). Among the varied social, political, and economic topics that concern so-called ethnomusicologists, we are interested in all kinds of sounds, performers, behaviour, and audiences that some might not even consider under the narrow rubric of “music” (and again, see Nettl)—such as spirit mediums and their utterances. We want to know how performers learn, about their social status, and how patrons assess the success of an event; the impact of collectivization and migration, indeed people’s changing lives; the ancestry of ritual manuals, and their relationship with texts as performed; where wind players get their reeds, how percussion patterns may vary according to context; and so on and on. Without demanding detailed semiotic analysis, none of this is beyond the abilities of scholars less highly trained in “music”.

So returning to my theme, here’s the deal: if we come to your party, you have to come to ours too:

Just as “music scholars” have learned to consider all kinds of social elements as they study performance, so scholars of ritual too must include in their brief all kinds of issues arising from soundscape, rather than coyly farming it out to musicologists.

3 thoughts on “Thinking outside the (music) box

  1. Pingback: Analyzing world music | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Lives of female mediums | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Blind minstrels of Ukraine | Stephen Jones: a blog

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