Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ethnomusicology, cultural policy, and change

From time to time we hear predictions about the death of music. Of course, music is a hard-wired human activity, and like language, it is not in any danger of disappearing. What these predictions mean is that certain kinds of musical languages and practices as the author knows them are threatened. Predictions of the death of blues have come regularly almost since it first came to notice in the common culture during the 1920s. Predictions of the death of classical music have come regularly for hundreds of years. Neither has died; both have changed.

In the past century or so, formal music education and the institutions associated with it have exerted more and more influence on music as it is heard, known, understood, and practiced. Any exploration of music and sustainability needs to take these institutions and their influence into account. But it is a complex subject, worthy of far more reflection than can be published here.

My little corners of the educational institutions associated with music are called ethnomusicology and folklore. These are educational "disciplines," which does not mean that they enforce rules on their members, but rather that those who practice them more or less agree on their particular subject and method. Some years ago I wrote that I thought the subject of ethnomusicology was "the study of people making music, all over the world." That definition has gained wide acceptance within the discipline. This begs the question of how ethnomusicology studies its subject but the fact is that ethnomusicologists bring many methods--humanistic, anthropological, scientific, psychological, cognitive, philosophical, and so forth--to the study of people making music. Ethnomusicologists, in other words, use all the means that scholars employ to study people; and in addition, to study musical structure, we use the method of musical analysis, which to some outside the guild is unfamilar because of the way music is written.

Folkore, also, admits of similar methods. Academic folklorists regard it as the study of people's expressive culture, which involves artistic and aesthetic communication in small groups and in everyday life. Burt Feintuch's introduction to the volume, Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, defines expressive culture as ". . . processes, emotions and ideas bound up in . . . forms and performances in everyday life."

This emphasis on everyday aesthetic experience is an evolved subject for folklore, for in the 18th and 19th centuries folklore's subject was "popular antiquities," and for most of the 20th century its subject was the study of oral tradition, as expressed by the "folk" in their songs, stories, and other verbal art, along with customs, pageants, and crafts (including vernacular architecture, painting, even farming). As the 20th century wore on, the term "folk" became problematic, looking, as it did, condescendingly toward a group of peasants or a proletariat characterized by functional illiteracy and marginality. Academic folklorists felt that our subject was disappearing; hence its reinvention, or revision, since the 1970s, into the performance of expressive culture.

The public, on the other hand, still regards folklore with some nostalgia as the quaint, the false, and the outmoded. Folklore as expressive culture has not gained any traction with the general public, and may never do so. Similarly, the general public wrongly thinks of ethnomusicology as the study of ethnic music. Of course, ethnomusicologists do study the music of ethnic groups, but that is limiting; ethnomusicologists also study the music of non-ethnic groups. As "ethnos" in ethnomusicology is from the Greek word for people, ethnomusicology is the study of people making music.

Folklore and ethnomusicology occupy very small spaces in the colleges, universities, schools of music, and music conservatories that are involved in activities sustaining music. We might generalize and say that while most of the educators in these institutions sustain music through teaching and practicing (composing and performing) it, folklorists and ethnomusicologists in the academy are at one remove from this, with a few of us thinking about how music is, has been, and can be, sustained--today usually through what is called cultural policy. Some also practice cultural policy; that is, some academic ethnomusicologists and folklorists are involved with agencies that make and apply cultural policy, and with communities that are the intended beneficiaries. Such ethnomusicologists are called applied ethnomusicologists; the thrust of this work is outside of the university, in the public sphere. Such folklorists are called public folklorists, for similar reasons. In fact, many applied ethnomusicologists, and most public folklorists, are employed outside of the academic world; they are culture workers, not professors. And so applied ethnomusicologists apply what they've learned from the study of people making music, to cultural policy involving music all over the world. Increasingly this cultural policy turns on sustainability.

Preservation, conservation, protection and safeguarding are often used to describe the aims of cultural policies meant to prevent threatened musics from becoming extinct. Usually these musics are called heritage, presumably giving them added value. What does it mean for a music to become extinct? Are we speaking of music cultures dying? Most often the alarm bell is raised over particular musical genres, such as blues, or categories of musical practice, such as classical music. But as I wrote above, these change. Music cultures effect genre changes; this is how music grows. Categories of musical practice are more difficult to sustain, as the music cultures that do the particular practice appear endangered.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The constitution of heritage

In 1993 I wrote the following about the blues revival of the 1960s: "Those of us who participated in the revival thought we had discovered an object called blues, which we then set out to think about, document, analyze, and in some cases, perform. Instead, by our interpretive acts, we constructed the very thing we thought we had found."* The same is true of music when it is sustained as cultural heritage. It's not new in 2008 to think about heritage as made, not found; but it is no less relevant now than it was in 1993. The paradox is that the heritage industry behaves as if heritage is discovered, not constructed; and then it sets about to construct (or constitute) a representation of what it supposes it has discovered.

A related post on this blog is "The paradox of authenticity."

*Jeff Todd Titon, "Reconstructing the Blues: Reflections on the 1960s Blues Revival," in Transforming Tradition, ed. Neil Rosenberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 222-223.