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.

1 comment:

  1. This blog is an interesting combination of music, musicology, and sustainability to write about. This is a truly interesting article that explains the differences of academic and applied ethnomusicology, and is correctly sourced. Good luck continuing this fascinating site.