A Brief Intro To Ethno/Musicology

German music historian Guido Adler defined the scope, method, and aims of musicology in the first journal dedicated to the subject. Adler defined musicology as  a science, but a science confined to “music perceived as an art form.” Namely, the study of European music. It was Adler who set the stage for the current language we discuss music in: Genres, evolution, eras, classification, and “metaphorical language rich in images of organic growth and decay.” These were not original concepts to Adler. Adler’s goal was to take art and make it scientific,and to do that he took core concepts from biological sciences. At its core, musicology can be defined as the scholarly study of music, separate from learning how to play music or write music.

Ethnomusicology on the other hand is notorious for being hard to define. If you look at Grove Music Online, or any number of sources, each entry will give you a vague definition, followed by caveats, like turtles, all the way down. One thing is certain though; one aspect of ethnomusicology is the study of different cultures and their relation to music outside of the realm of Europe and its art music. Ethnomusicology was originally titled comparative musicology, and it is comparative anatomy we have to thank for that. So how are comparative musicology and anatomy related, and why was the name changed? Comparative anatomy searches for similarities and differences in different species, and in doing so, it has become a foundation for the theory of evolution. Comparative musicology is named thus because it was originally thought of as the study of less evolved music, tribes, primitive folk, and exotic beings from the East. Now we can see that this entire concept is racist and colonialist in the extreme, and this is one of the reasons the field broke off from musicology. According to Jaap Kunst in his work Ethnomusicology, one of the revolutionary scientists we have to thank for the reframing of ethnomusicology is Alexander John Ellis. Ellis, affectionately called the ‘father of ethnomusicology,’ published a treatise on tone measurements that revealed that there is no natural scale and that all scales, including Western ones, were diverse and artificial. This went against all the musicologists who perpetuated the idea that ‘exotic’ music sounded out of tune, tasteless, and unmusical.

In Joseph Kerman’s book, Contemplating Music, he explains that the entire scope of musicology has diminished since its inception. A good example would be that ethnomusicology was once a part of musicology on the whole. Kerman also speaks on the factual nature of musicology, and how empirical data is at the core of the study, while philosophy is discarded. Another shift that has taken place is the separation of  music theory from musicology. Music history has such a large hold on the field that it is easy to forget that music history is not all that musicology is. One goal that ethnomusicologists have for musicology on the whole is to reevaluate how musicologists study Western art music. Can we get musicologists to take on an ethnomusicological approach? Gradually. We have already seen a small changes, in some instances, today, which is the result of a growing awareness of social issues and a greater access to other musical cultures. This is not only true for musicians, like those in Latin ensembles and World Music courses, but in music appreciation classes and in schools from kindergarten up.

The more we study the sounds created by humans on a global scale, the more we will realize that the cultures of sound and music are neither isolated nor in the past, and this is already being reflected in educational texts, journals, and every other form of communication from the grassroots up. The future of ethnomusicology will never return to its past as a study primarily of “traditional music.” Radio, Television, Film, and Popular Culture all fall under ethnomusicological studies and ethnomusicology is not just isolated to the arts either. Ethnomusicology is interdisciplinary in its very nature, and will continue to evolve the more we include different subjects into the field. Anthropology, critical theory, technology, physics, biology, economics, and ecology have all tossed their hat into the ring, and now that we’re thinking outside the box, the possibilities are endless.

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Thoughts on Authenticity in Music

Our attachment to authenticity speaks to the broader and much more serious implication that the Western Art Music world wants to remain faithful to its colonialist roots.

When we attempt to perform music authentically in the tradition of Western Art Music (WAM), we are attempting to recreate a piece of music as the composer would have heard it in his own time. There are some who believe we have a moral obligation to perform music in this manner, holding to the idea that what is written on the page is exactly what the composer wanted. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the composer had all the tools they wished at their disposal. It is not unrealistic to say that if that same composer were working with today’s tools, they might make different choices. It is impossible to know for sure, however, what the composer truly wanted. If we look farther into the past, putting music in writing was simply a formality and a guide, or was meant to be a work of visual art, rather than an authoritative document to follow by rote.

Scholars also question whether it is truly a moral duty to remain faithful to an original score.  Pro-authenticity arguments state that if the sheet music is authentic, we should strive to match the conditions of the source as closely as possible. To ignore the authority of an original source is to be distasteful and egotistically presumptuous. The pro-authenticity argument fights against the teleological argument (in the ethical sense) that what is now and what will be is ultimately better than what was. In fact, it is entirely right to question the logic that the future will be better than our past. But each argument needs to be balanced by looking objectively at both sides.

In Ernst Bloch’s essay, Discussing Expressionism, he opens by stating how intriguing it is that “there are people who can get so worked up over a movement long since past, as if it still existed and were standing in their way.” True, he was talking about Expressionism and not authenticity, but his statement does seem to express one of many questions anti-authoritative narratives have. Why are we getting so worked up over the past so intensely that we fail to see it in the proper perspective? Theodor Adorno (Bach Defended Against his Devotees) argues that because we put Bach on such a high pedestal, he is dehumanized to the point that the reality of the composer is erased, and a dull imitation is put in his place, thus “neutralizing art.”  Another anti-authoritative argument is that no matter how much we try to imitate or recreate the past, we are only recreating it in our own manner. Because we are not a product of past eras, we cannot truly recreate the past (see: simulacrum). However, we should not assume that all things produced today are better than those of the past. There are exceptions. Robert Donington gives the example (Interpretation of Early Music) that gut strings in early seventeenth-century bowed instruments take a significantly longer amount of time to vibrate than modern strings, and therefore it might be a disadvantage to play these authentically. He also points out that it is possible to be true to our own ideas of authenticity. Our interpretation is authentic in the way that, if the player interprets a piece in a way that’s true to himself, that performance is authentic to that player.

But what about authenticity’s relationship with Ethnomusicology? Ethnomusicology is still considered a subfield in a world where, in reality, Ethnomusicology dominates via pop culture. From an ethnological viewpoint, authenticity can be pivotal. It can create historical and educational accounts and performances that illustrate cultures that have not been accurately recorded in history books. If at all. Using authenticity as a tool for reparations can be extremely meaningful, and although some point out that this mindset originates from the White Savior Complex of the hegemonic western global north, it can also be used as a tool for diaspora to reclaim and build from their heritage.

Personally, I suspect that our continued adherence to authenticity is partially an echo of post-war disillusionment and partially the product of a technology boom we were not prepared to handle collectively. Unfortunately, we cannot move forward until the collective consciousness stops believing that we are spiraling downward, preventing us from looking toward a creative and evolutionary future. Paradoxically, it is modern technology that allows us to recreate and romanticize the past. We are able to make the tools needed to approach the past because we have technology. Without modern innovation, these treasures would be lost to age and decay.  

The downward spiral narrative includes the view that the last century of Western Art illustrates our breakdown of culture. The last century has brought us reactionary, ironic, commercial, and most offensively to some, meaningless art, and this represents an unsettling future to many people. There are many valid reasons to worry for the future, but it is also not so extreme as to completely invalidate experimentation and discourage creativity. It is all right to enjoy the sound of the past when it’s played closer to the reality of that time, but it is also not reprehensible to want to try new things. As Richard Taruskin says, “Mozart’s disdain and Beethoven’s discomfort need not deter us. They are dead” (Text and Act).

This is not a statement in favor of the teleological ethics argument, but our attachment to authenticity speaks to the broader and much more serious implication that the Western Art Music world wants to remain faithful to its colonialist roots. Tradition for the sake of tradition is ahistorical at best and psychologically violent at worst. In Confronting White Educational Privilege in the Classroom, Melissa Weiner discusses the pedagogy of whiteness and how it can cause students to disengage from the material (and in this case we can also apply this to the history of the upper class). Though we are aware of all the arguments against authenticity, there seems to be little encouragement to move past rigidity in our classical and academic tradition. It is not detrimental if the audience members clap between movements or if we play Bach on a modern piano. Put simply, taking authenticity too seriously is to ignore the current tangible world. Authenticity, even if it were attainable, was never meant to be a fundamental axis for Western Art Music – or any other type of art.