[Ethno]+[music]+[o]+[logy] = *groan*

Sociologist, cultural critic, renaissance man Hamid Dabashi wrote a nice opinion piece on al-Jazeera in January 2013 that I just recently came across with the great title “Can Non-Europeans Think?”, ruminating with his characteristic… eh… candor? Maybe candor is the right word? Straightforwardness? Anyway, proffering his uncompromising take on the peculiar brand of academic chauvinism that I wrote about recently.

His piece was provoked by reading what he called a “lovely little panegyric” to the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek on al-Jazeera, which listed him among the world’s great philosophers – a list which was conspicuous in its lack of any non-Europeans (also conspicuous for including Žižek). Dabashi considers this a Eurocentric practice of creating space for thought only within a particular European paradigm, which works to exclude thinkers in other traditions. And he’s right. We see this most obviously when we ‘mark’ certain kinds of scholars – we more rarely say that Malabou is writing “French Philosophy” or is contributing to philosophy from a particularly “French” perspective, whereas any African philosopher must be noted as “African”. Malabou is striding forward and expanding the boundaries of European philosophy, whereas African philosophers are granted neither a history nor a place within European thought, with certain exceptions (St. Sugustine, most obviously). Even Malabou is marked as a ‘Woman’ philosopher, despite her own discomfort with that attribution. ‘French’ is not a word that categorizes Malabou as anything but having the proper pedigree.

Dabashi’s argument is well worn, but bears repeating. Studies of the philosophy of Africans like Tempel’s “La Philosophie Bantoue” are in some very real sense anthropological works, not evaluations of philosophical thinking.

One place where this issue intersects with my goals here is his question:

Why is it that if Mozart sneezes it is “music” (and I am quite sure the great genius even sneezed melodiously) but the most sophisticated Indian music ragas are the subject of “ethnomusicology”?

I think one simple answer from ethnomusicologists is: “We know, it’s stupid.”

There were, before my time, but in the recent memory of many ethnomusicologists, a huge self-flagellating auto-critique of the term ‘ethnomusicology’ in the 1990s, and no new name could be agreed on. Some obvious names, taking their cue from anthropology, like “Sociomusicology” (NSFW, NSFS [not safe for soul], also not sociomusicology) and “cultural musicology” were objected to by musicologists because they considered their interest in European music to be “social” and “cultural” just as much as anyone else. For my part, I couldn’t care less for this argument, since it seems like a jealous kid making claims about why no one can play with his toys because he might someday sometime want to play with them at some unknown point in the future. the size, breadth, heft, and depth of academic musicology is constantly surprising to me.

I know European music is social and cultural (spoilers: very nearly all music is), but that doesn’t mean a) that musicologists necessarily are interested in these things, b) that there could be no such discipline, or c) that any current musicologist would be excluded from such a discipline.

A fuller account of the naming issue would have to deal not only with the question of the topic itself, but the ways in which ethnomusicological work is inexplicably transformed and translated from one context to the next. In South India, the same ragam studied in the same context and with the same method would be considered a musicological or anthropological enterprise, while an American researcher would be compelled to refer to this as ‘ethnomusicology’. The very discipline that is associated with the research is changed – even if a South Asian student comes to the United States to study, she becomes an ‘ethnomusicologist’ by default, with very rare exceptions.

This issue was the subject of an interesting debate in a seminar on South Asian music I attended, discussing Nazir Jairazbhoy’s The Rags of North Indian Music: Their Structure and Evolution (1971). The book itself is a straightforward musical-theoretical/hypothetical account of the development of Hindustani rags based on a series of scalar developments and subsequent musical calibrations. The only thing that could qualify the book as “ethnomusicology” is its reference to Hindustani music – otherwise, it is entirely a work of music theory. Yet, it is still classified as ‘ethnomusicology’.

Really, and perhaps I should be disabused of this notion, the problem seems to lie in the American academic relationship between Musicology (Mozart sneezing) and Ethnomusicology (rag-s). I think a shared notion amongst many ethnomusicologists is that ‘Ethnomusicology’ should be named ‘Musicology’, that is, the study of all music, and what is now ‘Musicology’ should be an area study of a particular constellation of regional variations of generalized human musical culture. I would wager that an alien that came to study human studies of human music would be baffled by the role of Musicology as a parent discipline to Ethnomusicology (both of which were arguably envisioned by Guido Adler at the same time in 1885).

But I don’t think that will happen. I’m often optimistic, but it seems impossible. There are just way more musicologists than ethnomusicologists, and groups with relatively more power (in the broadest sense here) rarely give that up to subordinate groups (again, broadest sense) to fix kinds of observed logical irregularities that serve their purposes.

I don’t know. There are plenty of musicologists who see this as an issue and ethnomusicologists need to appreciate them and work with them to integrate insights from the two disciplines to further our study of human/animal musicality. Nicholas Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction is a good example of this – he integrates some knowledge of human musical ingenuity and variation to supplement general points about music.  But even Cook can’t or won’t really grapple with some basic ethnomusicological critiques of the study of music in general.

The issue remains that calling a discipline “ethno-something” is already quaint, pedantic, othering, and deeply problematic. Some of us simply refer to our field as “musicology” whenever we aren’t around jealous musicologists, others, like myself, consider ethnomusicologists to be anthropologists who take seriously aesthetic and performative practices. The virtue of the first is that it includes people who prioritize musical features of non-Western traditions, the virtue of the second is that I can pretend I’m not involved with the occasional myopia of Music departments, a context I’ve never felt comfortable in.

I think the real root of the problem is the way in which the social sciences and humanities so uncomfortably overlap in this necessarily interdisciplinary endeavor. I really believe that the current state of the American academy has an endless taste for talking the talk of interdisciplinary work while tacitly discouraging interdisciplinary work.

The Society for Ethnomusicology’s Student Concerns Committee’s (oh my god terrible naaaaame, also FB link) main organ ‘Student News’ is devoting its next issue to ‘Interdisciplinarity’, which may give us some good perspectives on the topic. Maybe?

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About Bradford Garvey

Ph.D student in Ethnomusicology, CUNY GC. Adjunct Lecturer in Music, CUNY Hunter.
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