Sunday, July 11, 2010

Disciplinary Divides, Social Divides? (II)

The New (Ethno)Musicologies, a collection edited by Henry Stobart, was published recently, and has a number of contributions that speak to the issue I wrote about a few months back.

The idea of a specific discipline catering to particular social categories, and hence certain musical topics, could be extended to further issues. The book features contributors from a number of different disciplines, many discussing how ethnomusicology and musical ethnography looks to them.

Fabian Holt, writing from popular music studies, notes that his discipline is focused on an Anglo-American pop canon where almost no ethnography is done. Ethnomusicology, when it focuses on popular music, looks almost entirely outside that canon, and does approach its topic ethnographically. He notes that many "American musics" not well-covered in popular music studies -- that of Asian-Americans, or Latin-Americans -- are far more likely to be picked up by ethnomusicologists.

Popular music studies, says Holt, sees its musical field as defined almost entirely by a dialectic between African- and Euro-American culture, gives Latin American music just a little attention, and Aboriginal and Asian-American musics almost no attention at all. The disciplinary lines in these inclusions and exclusions are clear for Holt: "To this day, there are deep differences in the core conventions of what is studied and how in popular music studies, musicology, and ethnomusicology" (p. 42).

I was happy to see an acknowledgement of how social class plays into this. Holt notes:

Academic culture has largely been centred on the white middle-class male subject, and middle-class values have defined the status of individual musics. Western, especially German, art music was the single privileged domain of early musicology, and it still dominates in...prestige. Conversely, stereotypes of "non-Western" musics and popular musics have worked to the disadvantage of scholars in ethnomusicology and popular music studies. Middle-class dominance in the latter is evident in almost complete ignorance of a working-class rural music such as country music.

I generally agree, though as my previous posts indicate, the sense of what is canonically acceptable middle-class or working-class music to a hip middle-class gaze bears much further interrogation.

Michelle Bigenho, an anthropologist who studied musical culture in Bolivia, writes about why she refuses the designation "ethnomusicologist." What I found interesting here is her refusal to assume that music is a unique or autonomous category in culture. In her experience, anthropology treats music as a part of larger cultural themes and practices, while in ethnomusicology, the centrality of music as a topic tends to edge out (or overdetermine) other considerations. She blames the departments and institutions that structure our disciplines: music departments expect ethnomusicologists to play music, teach ensembles, teach area studies and genres, so that's what gets studied. Anthropologists would never do this; music is not always so isolatable, and indeed, this would be seen by some as a counterproductive way to understand a culture.

I'm just starting on Nicholas Cook's essay on musicology vis a vis ethnomusicology, but it looks like more promising insights on this are to come.

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