In the last month I spent the better part of two weeks at academic conferences, one in California on cultural sustainabilities, the other in Newfoundland on phenomenology and ethnomusicology. Typical of academic conferences, those who gathered presented their research and exchanged ideas; but atypically, these were small conferences, with about twenty presenters at each one. Small conferences where academics gather over a single topic are more frequent in the humanities nowadays and, because they are focused on topics of special interest to those who participate, they can be more rewarding than the large, annual, professional disciplinary ones. On this blog I’ve had a lot to say in the last ten years about musical, sonic and cultural sustainabilities. I haven’t written much about phenomenology here, though, so perhaps it’s time to say something about it in connection with the history of ethnomusicology.
Phenomenology is a word that sends most people to the dictionary. Seldom heard outside of academia, for decades it inhabited the discipline of philosophy, and then in the second half of the 20th century it escaped to other branches of the humanities. The key word in phenomenology is experience. Phenomenologists study experience, experience as presented to consciousness. More generally, phenomenology is the study of phenomena as presented to awareness. Physics, of course, studies phenomena—but as external objects, independent of personal observation. Experiences presented to my consciousness will differ from your experiences presented to your consciousness; but that table over there exists whether or not you and I are aware of it. When we are aware of it, it is present to our consciousnesses individually. You may be experiencing its shape while I may experience its shiny surface. Experience is personal and individual; and phenomenologists study it as it is present to consciousness. A phenomenological ethnomusicology emphasizes musical experience. Musical experience would appear an obvious direction for ethnomusicological inquiry; but according to Harris Berger, the convener of our conference in Newfoundland, and the editor of and a contributor to a book-in-progress, the Oxford Handbook of Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, phenomenology didn’t enter ethnomusicology until fairly late in its history, the 1970s and 1980s. Why not?
It wasn’t because ethnomusicologists were unconcerned with musical experience altogether. The early ones (the comparative musicologists, beginning in the 1880s) were most interested in comparing how music was structured—scales, rhythms, melodies—among different social groups throughout the world. A notable exception was Carl Stumpf, interested in music psychology; but let that be. In the 1920s comparative musicology began to take social and cultural context more seriously, as evidenced in the work of Constantin Brailloiu in Romania and George Herzog in the US. In the 1950s, two American anthropologists, David McAllester and Alan Merriam, were asking their Native American informants (Navajo and Flathead, respectively) about their ideas about music—what it was, what it was for, and how they felt about it. Asking how they felt was to ask about experience. McAllester told me his Navajo friends found those to be very odd questions; they just didn’t habitually think about those things. And so the answers he got were brief and not very informative. In the 1960s, when as a blues musician I asked my blues-playing friends the same kinds of questions, I got pretty much the same kinds of answers—it wasn’t something they thought about. Happy to talk about their careers in blues, some going back to the 1930s, and willing to critique other (usually more famous) musicians, they had not developed what might be called a theory of blues experience. When I told them that the blues historians and jazz critics wrote that blues is a cathartic experience, they laughed. They were professional musicians, after all. Blues was a way to make a living, not personal drama. They wouldn’t last long as performers if they had to purge themselves of melancholy night after night.
What Merriam, McAllester, and I had in common, in addition, was ignorance of the phenomenological tradition—or at least, I was ignorant, and I’m not aware that Merriam or McAllester ever indicated their debt to it. But in the 1970s I stumbled onto it in connection with a new research project, where experience was at the center of authentic performance, and where a rich tradition of talk about that experience had developed. In fact, talk was expected, as a way of validating the experience’s authenticity. My research project began in the mid-1970s, around the same time or possibly somewhat earlier than two other research projects where musical experience also was at the center, one undertaken by Ruth Stone and the other by Tim Rice. Even though each of us did something a little different, what we all had in common was that in that decade we encountered phenomenology. When we wrote about this research, we acknowledged how phenomenological methods had guided it, and our interpretative conclusions. Stone employed classic phenomenology to study the experience of time among Kpelle musicians in Liberia. Rice, drawing on the phenomenology of bodily experience, wrote about how his fingers learned to play the Bulgarian bagpipe when his mind was unable to grasp the technique by means of musical analysis. And I employed what my friend and colleague Dan Dennett later termed heterophenomenology, after I had read Ninian Smart’s brief on behalf of phenomenology in the study of comparative religion. I should add that Berger writes that it was with this research and writing by Stone, Rice, and myself, that phenomenology entered ethnomusicology. I’m not sure where Stone encountered phenomenology but I would guess through Husserl. Rice may have found it through Merleau-Ponty, and possibly he also had read the work of David Sudnow; but like me, he soon moved into the field of interpretive, or hermeneutic, phenomenology. I only know for certain the details of how I stumbled onto it, and how helpful it was to me as I was doing my research and writing about sacred speech, chant, and song in the 1970s and 1980s. That will be the subject of my next blog entry.