Sustainable Music


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Applied Ethnomusicology and the University: A Fraught Relation

    In the previous entry I said I’d return to the reasons why the false dichotomy between applied and academic ethnomusicology persists in the academic world itself. In the last paragraph there, I summarized four reasons, all of which I characterized as institutional. Not too long ago, Anthony Seeger wrote about “lost lineages” in ethnomusicology, pointing out that those academics who have constructed their histories of the discipline have neglected several people who might be considered applied ethnomusicologists.[1] These included Alan Lomax, and also Tony’s own grandfather, Charles Seeger, whose later theoretical contributions are part of those histories, but whose earlier work on behalf of music and social justice has been overlooked. Like me, Seeger thinks the reasons for this are primarily institutional and bound up with the professionalization of ethnomusicology as a discipline. He points out, also, that contemporary academics tend to pick and choose their own ancestors, with a view to finding a lineage that leads to their own way of thinking about their profession. He asks the question, Who is an ethnomusicologist? In what follows I would like to pick up some of the threads of his essay in order to account for the continuing confusions over applied ethnomusicology within the academy, noting again that those confusions are embedded in and result from ethnomusicology’s disciplinary culture and the academy’s orientation itself. As an aside, I note another reason why academics neglected applied ethnomusicology for so long: the suspicion, among the generation that founded the Society for Ethnomusicology in the 1950s, of those who would use the arts for political purposes, or as propaganda. Fresh in their minds were examples from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Bloc. But I will leave that point for a later publication.
    Let me return to Seeger’s question, Who is an ethnomusicologist? Ask most people outside the academy and they’d answer, A what? Some journalists do use the term popularly to refer to people who write about music, particularly world music. Academics get upset when media-types use the term so loosely. (See the update at the end of this entry.) Ask a professor of ethnomusicology at a college or university and the considered answer likely will be this: an ethnomusicologist is someone with graduate professional training in ethnomusicology; that is, someone who has absorbed its subject and methodologies; someone who understands its history, its scope, the questions that are properly asked of people making music, past and present; someone who knows the kinds of answers that are credible and those that are not; and someone who does scholarly research in ethnomusicology. The ethnomusicologist probably teaches at a college or university, or aspires to do so; and the career of an ethnomusicologist almost always includes publication as well as research. A US ethnomusicologist also belongs to the Society for Ethnomusicology, the discipline’s professional association. I myself qualify on the basis of all those criteria, but Alan Lomax, who practiced applied ethnomusicology, and who published scholarly research, did not. He never had graduate training in ethnomusicology and did not fully understand it as a professional discipline. His understanding remained original and idiosyncratic. In the 1940s, after he had been in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress for several years, with extensive experience in folk music collecting, in operating an archival repository, and in what we would now call public ethnomusicology, he did attempt to study with George Herzog, the leading ethnomusicologist in the US at that time.[2] Herzog, teaching then at Columbia University in New York, would not take him on as a student, though, and what Lomax learned of ethnomusicology he learned through acquaintance with the subject more or less on his own, as well as with some folklorists and ethnomusicologists who were willing at a later date to work with him as a colleague. (I was one of those.)[3]
    Lomax’s difficulties derived from an old division within fields like anthropology, folklore, and going back even further, natural history. Back in the day—way back in the day—people working in these fields were sorted out into traveling correspondents and those theorists whose work was more systematic and synthetic. Correspondents were collectors who sent specimens to the theorists who stayed put (for the most part) and worked on classification, speculating and building systems. Based on comparative analysis these theorists attempted to answer questions about origin, diffusion, development and the larger scheme of things. In the early days of comparative musicology (predecessor to ethnomusicology), when collecting, musical transcription, description and comparative analysis comprised the discipline, the distinction was made between what was called field work (the collecting work of traveling correspondents) and desk work or lab work (the analytical work of the theorists). This distinction was still current about 1950 when Curt Sachs described the field of comparative musicology thusly in his book, The Wellsprings of Music.[4] A few years later the Society for Ethnomusicology formed, adopting ethnomusicology as the new name for the discipline, reflecting a new American emphasis on the cultural study of music; but if you look in the Society’s early newsletters you’ll see “correspondence from the field” as well as analytical and interpretative essays. Of course, some of the notable theorists also did fieldwork; and based on anthropological models it wasn’t long before graduate training in ethnomusicology expanded in the US in earnest. Professional ethnomusicologists might rely on others' fieldwork but also spent much time doing their own. Travelers, correspondents, amateurs, and mere collectors were regarded now as unprofessional. Professional ethnomusicologists were those who had graduate training inside the academic world; the others were relegated to a second class status at best.
    Although this explains the academic vs. non-academic, professional vs. amateur divide, it doesn’t do justice to the reasons for it. In fact, amateur research and scholarship have long been valuable and valued, especially in fields such as ornithology and astronomy. But in the last century as anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology sought to establish and solidify their footing as relatively new disciplines within academic institutions where specialization, professionalism, and the appearance of scientific procedures lent prestige, it became important for them to distance themselves from the amateurs who operated on the outside. (This was, and remains, particularly difficult for folklorists, as the general public has its own idea of what folklore is and who folklorists are. Ethnomusicology had, at least, the advantage of unfamiliarity and more syllables.) Also, as Anthony Seeger pointed out in his “lost lineages” essay, academic institutions are engaged in, among other things, replicating themselves. Their “products” are not merely graduates, research and the dissemination of knowledge, but also professionally trained graduate students, who will in turn become professors and administrators inside the academy. And their professorial work is judged based on their teaching and the quality of their research, chiefly in print publication and by peer review. Applied projects accomplished by academics are much fewer in number, and difficult to endorse by the same scholarly criteria, especially when aimed at the general public.
    Although I knew this was so after fifteen years of teaching at Tufts, it was when I came to Brown to direct a PhD program in ethnomusicology that it became fully impressed on me. In one of my early meetings with the dean of Brown’s graduate school, I argued for the expansion of our ethnomusicology doctoral program, saying that our graduates would go on to careers not only in college teaching and research, but also as archivists and research scholars in museums and libraries, and as applied ethnomusicologists both inside and outside the university world. The dean countered by saying that the latter two goals were not unworthy, but that because Brown was a top-tier school she would offer graduate fellowships only to students who were likely to end up teaching at peer universities, for as I well knew, that was how we made our reputation for excellence, and not on the basis of how many librarians or community musical activists we turned out. That we did manage to “turn out” archivists and community activists and a fair number of applied ethnomusicologists (most of whom have remained in the academic world) in the 27 years that I led the program occurred despite the institutional pressures for self-replication, and because students were attracted to those ways of doing ethnomusicology after they arrived with their fellowships and decided that they wanted to do applied work, if not immediately, then eventually.
    A final reason for the persistence of the mistaken dichotomy of academic vs. applied ethnomusicology has to do with the isolation of universities from public life in the US. This separation has a history in the private institutions, particularly those in my section of the US (New England) with a reputation for elitism. Public institutions such as land-grant universities ought to have much more connection with the public sphere, but apparently they do not. Indeed, state legislatures have systematically cut their budgets, and relations between public universities and state governments are fraught, while federal funding of research also seems on a downward spiral. Universities' Internet front-pages are forever advertising the scientific research they have accomplished for the public good, but town-gown relations are perennially at a low ebb. If there were a strong cadre of public intellectuals in the US, or if academics took more of a role in public discourse, or if there were more intellectual public discourse—the level of discussion on the media talk shows discourages it, while the news media themselves do not permit it, instead offering up only one-way news stories and so-called expert opinion—perhaps things would be different. Although a few journals, such as the New York Review of Books, do carry on an intellectual public discourse at a high level, their audience is mostly confined to other academics. As a result that discourse, mainly critical, doesn’t influence public opinion.  The popular stereotype of the intellectual in the US is of an egghead unfit for anything but the classroom: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Academic institutions don’t as a rule supply our presidents or federal or state representatives, though international relations units within them do supply diplomats and occasional advisers. Our representatives move from government to the corporate/legal world and back far more than to and from academia. The usual preparation for government is law school and a legal or business career, not graduate school or university teaching. Such institutional academic isolation makes it all the more difficult for academics to conceive of applied work, and for non-academics even to imagine that professors might engage in it.
    Powerful currents within the academic establishment and outside of it are aligned to perpetuate the error of opposing applied to academic ethnomusicology. Yet there are some signs of change. SEM has various interest groups, or sections; the aforementioned Applied Ethnomusicology Section happens to have more members than any other, signaling the tremendous interest in this ethnomusicological subfield. Those within the Section who are employed in the university world are already doing, or will be doing, applied work; those who are graduate students would like to do it, but if they enter academia they may have to wait until tenure before they undertake it to any large extent. Working against that, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track positions at colleges and universities has been shrinking for at least a few decades, as academic institutions hire an increasing proportion of adjunct professors in lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits and without job security. Given the state of the academic job market at present, which tends to mirror the economy at large, some of those graduate students will choose, or be forced to choose, employment outside the academy, where they are more likely to begin by putting their ethnomusicological skills and knowledge to practical use. It’s clear to me that applied ethnomusicology is a growth field, but growth within the academy will depend on whether a sufficient number of professors turn to applied work, and whether they are willing to put applied ethnomusicology into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

     [1]. Anthony Seeger, "Lost Lineages and Neglected Peers: Ethnomusicologists Outside Academia." Ethnomusicology, Vol. 50, no. 2 (2006), pp. 214-235.
     [2]. Lomax's letters while he was employed at the Library of Congress say more about his encounter with Herzog. As I read them, Lomax didn't think he needed to take the course Herzog considered a prerequisite to the one Lomax did want to enroll in. Herzog wouldn't budge from the requirement, and Lomax came out of the meeting with the impression that Herzog was a "neurotic" little fellow. Indeed, Herzog had a reputation for being difficult. See Ronald Cohen, ed., Alan Lomax, Assistant-in-Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945 (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010).
     [3] My acquaintance with Lomax began in the early 1970s when I wrote to him requesting copies of his then unpublished Cantometrics training tapes. In exchange for letting me hear them, he asked me to test their effectiveness with students in my ethnomusicology classes at Tufts, which I did over a period of a few years.
     [4]. Curt Sachs, The Wellsprings of Music (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955).

Update, March 28, 2014: On this evening's NPR "The World" broadcast, PRI host Marco Werman introduced the show's daily world music track by saying he would play an "altiplano" selection and then apologized for "going all ethnomusicology on you." I couldn't have asked for a better illustration of the popular/academic divide.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Applied vs. Academic Ethnomusicology: A Persistent Error

    Why do people continue to believe, mistakenly and with harmful consequences, that applied ethnomusicology stands in oppostion to academic ethnomusicology? I wrote about this in passing, in a 2011 blog entry. Here, as I prepare my part of the Introduction to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, which I'm co-editing with Svanibor Pettan, I return to explain the reasons. The mistake arises out of a confusion of what applied ethnomusicology is, with where the person doing it is employed. Think of a grid with two fields and two categories. The fields are places of employment: either (1) inside colleges and universities, or (2) outside them. The categories: (1) ethnomusicological reseach and scholarship, and (2) ethnomusicological research and scholarship put to practical use--i.e., applied ethnomusicology. None of these is mutually exclusive. Ethnomusicologists do scholarly research whether employed in the academic world or not. Ethnomusicologists do applied work whether employed inside the academy or outside of it. In fact, considered as a worldwide phenomenon, more academics than non-academics are engaged in applied ethnomusicology.  
    One recent example of the persistence of this false dichotomy: At the 2013 conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), a meeting of “program heads” was convened for the first time, bringing together representative directors of university doctoral programs, faculty from colleges offering only undergraduate degrees, and heads of institutions doing applied ethnomusicology in the public interest, such as Smithsonian Folkways Records, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. For those who may not be aware of their work in this area, Smithsonian Folkways promotes the music of traditional musicians in minority groups and cultures, while the Rock and Roll museum has a large educational music outreach program. The convener of this event asked me (as a co-chair of the Applied Ethnomusicology Section of SEM) to suggest names of people who would represent “public sector ethnomusicology”—that is, ethnomusicology practiced by those employed by taxpayer dollars in government-funded institutions at the federal and state level. Not only did such a charge overlook the NGOs doing applied ethnomusicology, but it was based on the same mistaken bifurcation of academic vs. applied, while locating applied ethnomusicology as something done outside of the academic world, in the public sector. And at the program heads meeting, I noted that most of the "heads" unthinkingly adopted the same bifurcated view.
    As an aside, the term “public sector ethnomusicology” hearkens back to the 1980s when public folklore was called “public sector folklore.” This was a misnomer then, as it is now; and it arose out of the same mistaken dichotomy between academic and public in the folklore world, which dichotomy was valiantly opposed by the then-president of the American Folklore Society (AFS), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in her 1988 address to the AFS, later published in the Society’s Journal. Must ethnomusicology repeat folklore’s agonies 25 years later?
    Why, then, does this division persist in the minds of ethnomusicologists? I don't think it's only a matter of confusion, and that once the facts are on the table, the error will disappear. The reasons for it are deeper, and the explanation is cultural--in the cultures of our own institutions. Unless those cultures change, the division will persist. One way to pursue it is to ask why so many ethnomusicologists employed outside the academic world are content to equate applied with non-academic. In the early 2000s, on the initiative of its Applied Ethnomusicology Section, SEM regularly sponsored panels on alternative careers where practitioners employed outside academia spoke of how they did applied ethnomusicology in their work. Among these were public folklorists specializing in music. The Section also invited people from the corporate and government worlds to speak to SEM. They included, for example, field recordists who had produced a significant body of world music recordings, such as David Lewiston with the old Nonesuch Explorer series. I think it’s a stretch to call what he did applied ethnomusicology, but it surely was a different kind of career from university teaching and research, and it did involve making field recordings of the kinds of music that academic ethnomusicologists recorded and studied. The difference was that these were aimed at the general public. Ethnomusicologists employed outside academia welcomed these presentations not only because they provided models but also as opportunities to learn how to navigate outside the academy in the corporate and government worlds. They also were attractive to younger ethnomusicologists, including graduate students, concerned about whether they would ever become tenured academics. In addition, some ethnomusicologists employed outside the academy have mixed feelings about the academic world, viewing it as privileged and elitist, thinking it ought to be more involved in the world outside the ivory tower, and regarding it as mired in useless theorizing and arcane scholarship which has little or no practical use. Ethnomusicology graduate students stronger in music performance than in musical and cultural theory may become resentful when they are unable to compete with talented scholars. Applied ethnomusicology outside of the academic world then becomes a more attractive alternative. In short, ethnomusicologists outside the academic world persist in equating applied ethnomusicology with non-academic employment because they look at their cohort and find that to be true about themselves. They overlook the fact that academics also do applied ethnomusicology.
    Another way to ask why the false dichotomy between applied and academic persists is to shift the question to the academy and ask why many US professors do not place a high value on applied work. Of course some academics, myself included, do place a high value on it; but frankly within the academy we are a minority, particularly in the US. Besides, we do research and publish scholarship as well. Here, the problem seems to be institutional, tied to the nature of the research university and the ways academic disciplines operate in them. Research and scholarship are more prestigious and result in more rewards than applied work, or teaching for that matter. To get tenure and remain in the university world today, young professors, no matter how good in the classroom, need to earn a strong reputation by publishing their research. The ways academic institutions must reproduce themselves by training graduate students in their own image is another reason. The need for a relatively young field such as ethnomusicology to establish its credentials among the academic disciplines, and to institutionalize itself within the structure of colleges and universities, is a third reason. Finally, whereas outside the US professors often are involved in politics and the public sphere, inside the US there is no such tradition, despite the cries from the conservative right that professors lean left. Taken together, these cultural aspects of US academic institutions make applied ethnomusicology difficult to practice while employed in them, particularly prior to tenure. I will have more to say about them in the next blog entry.