I'm being nudged into ethnomusicology

I started studying musicology with an explicit aim.

Traditionally there's been a great divide between the academic discourse around "art music", which most often consists of aesthetic or theoretical/analytical or hermeneutic studies, and the academic discourse around popular music, which often is about something else entirely. It's sociology, or ethnology, or cultural studies, or anthropology, or at best style history. I wanted to be different, emulate someone like Mark Butler, and write about how popular music works and what makes it great rather than who uses it and why.

But academia is an insidious beast. It's a system, that for better or worse pushes you in the direction it wants. It seems I'm on the way towards ethnomusicology whether I want to or not.

I came to my head of department, last fall, with a broad set of ideas for Master's theses. I wrote him a letter suggesting I could work on statistical analysis of popular music, knowing his own background in statistics might lure him towards it. I suggested I could work on the music theory of Asian music in some way. I mentioned my old question about Manele's relation to Indian music. Then when I actually got to meet him I only got so far as "well, it started out when I became interested in this Romanian music genre..." before he said to me that it sounded like an excellent idea for the essay. I was really happy. I still am. I can write my essay on manele, how cool, just one of my many interests but nevertheless one I love!

And he got me a real high-profile supervisor! Dan Lundberg apparently only takes on an essay student now and again, and I was assured he'd be perfect because of his great love and knowledge of the Balkans. I met him the other day, and he was. He knew stuff about manele I didn't and pointed me in lots of interesting directions. And again I offered broad suggestions. How does the Asian music integrate? How does the modernity and ethnicity of manele contrast, musically? Could traces of the postcolony be found somewhere in the material? How does manele work with the self-image of the Roma? Well, I only got as far as "well, there's this genre in Romania that is widely despised in society..." before he suggested a study in the spirit of Bourdieu. Excellent, I said, maybe I can put some Paul Gilroy in there, intent on the Asia connection, and he said that sounded great and to look for more theoretical perspectives.

Do you see what the pattern is? In each step I've had complete freedom and come away with a choice I've really wanted to do. But in each instance the authority figure has encouraged my least aesthetic/theoretical option and nudged me towards ethnomusicology. So at the end point here I am, reading Mark Slobin and tentatively looking at writing about diasporas without homelands. And I'm left shaking my head and wondering: how did I get here?


w&w said...

False dichotomy! Aesthetic matters can -- and should, and are -- also be a part of ethnomusicological inquiry. Indeed, I think you absolutely should keep asking questions about aesthetics even as you take into account important issues of society and culture. It's all inseparable.

Birdseed said...

An abstraction, as Carl Dahlhaus aptly points out, is not necessarily a false abstraction. It's perfectly possible, even worthwhile and desirable, to study the details of a particular piece of music or genre or technical detail without taking a holistic approach.

It's just I'm not allowed to. In the gentlest kind of way possible.

Birdseed said...

Anyway, the questions asked are very different. Sure, I've got an interest in the background of the aesthetics, how they can be explained using great theories, how they connect to the creator/listener. But I'm also interested in how music works, its internal operational logic, its cognitive properties and why it's great. Those aren't really questions you can reasonably approach from a viewpoint of ethnology, unless you make them out to be something other than what they are.

I can readily recognise that something like greatness is cultured, and that Sinatra and Soulja Boy are great in totally different ways, but it works at a level beyond consciously expressed values. Reducing it to just a function of social taste (or whatever) is also, if anything, an abstraction. (Yes, I know, I do that too.)

w&w said...

I see what you're saying, but I resist reducing ethnomusicology to a particular set of questions. I understand what you mean by holism -- there's definitely a tendency to resist abstracting music outside of social/cultural context, but the abstraction of music, of course, only ever happens in some such context.

Birdseed said...

Well, I can't really see how I'm going to avoid taking an all-sides approach to music, unless my courses in algorithmic analysis of music in Helsinki next term pan out and I can become that insular music statistician I dream of. Consider this my last stand before I join your ranks.