The history of ethnomusicology since ca. 1950 is explored from a personal perspective by contemplating ways in which the author (seeing himself as an exemplar of the profession as a whole) has changed directions and attitudes on several major issues: (a) The system of ideas, often very complex, about music in indigenous societies provides important insights into a culture. (b) Recent research in the history of Native American cultures suggests that the music discovered and recorded in the twentieth century may be a remnant of much more complex music that disappeared when the population of Native Americans was greatly reduced after the coming of Europeans. (c) Rather than looking for the origins of music in human society fundamentally as one event, the author suggests that a number of different kinds of sound communication, originally unrelated, only later came to be seen as comprising a single unified concept. (d) The concept of authenticity used to explain the relationship between a society and its own unique music has been abandoned in favor of an understanding that the function of music is more typically to establish and maintain relationships among societies. (e) The usefulness of learning performance as part of fieldwork has been broadly accepted and the risks it presented to authentic transmission and preservation turn out to have been exaggerated. In a related development, the capacity of ethnomusicological research to provide practical benefits has become a major focus of the field.
Recently, a student, having heard that I had been working in ethnomusicology for over sixty years, asked me, "have you changed your mind about anything?" I'm not sure he was serious, but my response should have been, "You should be asking: Is there anything you believed in 1950 that you still believe?" Well, there are a few things, but actually not many. But I think, rather than trying to parse what "change your mind" or "anything" really mean, let me talk about some things that I have really had to rethink, making a 180-degree turn, over the past several decades. Along with some of my idiosyncratic observations, I am of course including some of the ideas and concepts that other ethnomusicologists have rethought. There seems to be no end to them; I just pick some of my favorites for this paper. They are about Merriam’s model, the nature and history of Native American music, the concept and origin of music, authenticity, and “doing good.”
Merriam’s Model: Which of the Three Sectors Gives Us the Greatest Insight?
My principal teacher, George Herzog, published, between 1928 and 1938, seven major articles about Native American musics, each of them consisting of transcriptions, analyses of songs, and a few words about activities that these songs accompanied. But in 1938, he published an article titled "Music in the Thinking of the American Indian" (Herzog 1938; for detailed discussion see Nettl 2013) which doesn't discuss musical styles at all, but is full of interesting things about Native American ideas about music, about the conceptions of music held by various Indian nations. But despite what now seems great significance, it appeared in a very obscure magazine and received no attention, and there's nothing really like it again by any author until decades later. My conclusion has to be: This was a time in which indigenous societies were credited with having songs, music, but while they passed these on orally, they had, it was widely thought, no particular ideas about them. Indigenous peoples had no music theory, they didn't talk about their songs although they sang them. These songs were pretty simple, it was thought, so one didn't have to base them on any kind of elaborate theory.
That's an attitude that has been abandoned, though maybe not by all. I plead guilty to having promulgated it in the 1950s. But instead, we some times think: Well, the musical aspect of these songs may have limited interest, although it's hard to rationalize this. But if the music is not very interesting, the ideas about it surely are. An important turning point is exemplified by the work of Alan Merriam, who promulgated (in publications of 1964 and 1967) his well-known three-part model of music, if I can put it that way. Music for him consisted of sound, behavior, and concepts. When it's explained, this seems obvious. But for Merriam the three components were co-eval, each affecting the other two. I'm not sure how well this model holds up, but I certainly began to think, on contemplating it, that music is not just the pieces and performances, which are supported by all kinds of behaviors and ideas, but that in any culture, the system of sound (what you get from analysis, maybe), and the system of ideas about music—even when it seems to have little to do with the actual sound—are of equal importance to an ethnomusicologist who is interested in the interrelationship of domains.
I don't know whether I can provide an illustration that would make this set of ideas significant, but let me try this by contrasting, for the music of the Blackfoot people, the sound and the system of ideas. (For greater detail on all this, see Nettl 1989.) Sound: Most of the songs the same "asymmetrical repetition" form, the same contours, a small number of alternative drum rhythm types, a homogeneous singing style. They sound passionate and expressive, but on the whole, as sound, they don't seem terribly interesting to us outsiders, and even to the Blackfoot people. Indeed, the Blackfoot people themselves don't consider music to be something that is beautiful, that you analyze; Western criteria of aesthetics are irrelevant. Blackfoot people regard Western music as something difficult to learn, complicated. But they believe that to white people, music is not as important as it is to the Indians. So, if the songs are not complicated, the ideas about them are.
I can only give you a couple of examples. First, there is the notion that music is a kind of system that parallels the rest of culture. "The right way to do anything is to sing the right song with it," I was told. Now, everyone is not always singing songs to accompany whatever activity is being carried out. But it is important to understand that to the Blackfoot, there is a musical universe that is parallel to the rest of the cultural universe.
A second example: Songs come to humans from visions in which supernatural figures teach songs. This has several practical results. For one thing, Blackfoot people say that they learn a song in one hearing; whether this is in fact usually the case—well, it varies. But the idea that a song is learned in one hearing comes from the concept of the vision, in which a vision being sings a song once to the visionary. Related to this is the notion that a song is a thing, an object, which can be given, perhaps sold, something that has existence like physical objects. A fundamental myth tells about a man, a great hunter, who gives away animal skins—the dressed skins of all animals and birds of the area—to a supernatural figure, a combination of man and beaver, receiving in return the supernatural power that goes with each object.
A related point is that since songs are like objects, they cannot be changed, varied, or altered. In real life, of course changes occur. But the point is that in the world of music as concept, a song can no more be changed than a ceremonial rattle, for example. There is lots more, but these examples may illustrate how important the set of ideas about is, even in a society whose songs are relatively simple from our perspective; and you can see how Merriam's notion of music as consisting of three portions is an important contribution to the way we may look at the musical cultures of the world.
And so I had to have second thoughts: From indigenous peoples as having songs but no ideas about them, to peoples whose system of ideas about music gives you far more insight into the culture than merely listening to the songs.
The Nature and History of Native American Music
This leads me to consider Native American more broadly. It's the music with which I've been concerned longest, and I guess as I learned about this in my studies and early on, there were two things that struck me as significant, things that were recognized in the scholarly literature up to that time. One is that in each society or nation, there is one dominant musical style. These musical styles were grouped in somewhat homogeneous areas, and distributed geographically thus: They correlated somewhat with culture areas, and somewhat with areas determined by language relationships, but they did not follow either—how shall I say it—slavishly. Secondly, many Native nations had a number of songs that were simpler than the rest—game songs, song in stories, lullabies—and that were pretty much alike throughout the continent. From this, one was led to believe, there could be reconstructed a kind of broad history of Native American music, in which an old, homogeneous layer of simple songs that all peoples shared was followed by a layer of styles that correlated somewhat with language and culture, and this was followed by individual and unique developments in each nation, representing relatively recent events.
I've come over the years to realize that this is a very simplistic approach, but let me fast-forward to the last couple of decades in which I've begun to think that if there is “a” history, it might have been quite different. We're becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of many Native cultures before1492. The complexity of agriculture, which developed many plant foods that were then taken up and became staples in Europe; the large cities in the Andes and Mexico, but also in what is now the USA, such as the metropolis of Cahokia near the present-day St. Louis, all suggest cultures whose social, religious, and economic cultures, matched their European and Asian counterparts; and so did the size of their populations. I find it hard to imagine that they didn't have music consisting of long compositions with complex structures, perhaps polyphony, performed by large groups of singers and percussionists and other instruments. Perhaps there was court music, and surely mass ceremonials. To be sure, we have no evidence of notation or of complex melody-producing instruments. And we cannot talk about musical styles except in terms of twentieth-century Native music. If we imagine that the people of Cahokia had music with complex styles, we have no idea of what it sounded like (see Mann 2006; Pauketat 2009).
And it’s not as if contemporary Native cultures didn't have pretty complicated music, especially when it comes to architectonic structure. I think of the song cycles of Southeastern nations, of Pueblo peoples, of the Navajo, of Peyote songs of the Kiowa. But instead of seeing these as a kind of apex of Native American musical creativity, I would now like to think of these remnants of what may once have been a more complex musical culture—or cultures.
Why remnants? When I went to school, I learned—from carefully researched studies by anthropologists such as A.L. Kroeber (1947)—that the Native population north of Mexico was never more than about one or two million. More recently it has become clear that the population before 1492 was much larger, much, much larger. Some estimates go as far as ninety million, but something on the order of twenty million seems more reasonable to me. A huge proportion of this population was wiped out in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but even more, already in the sixteenth, shortly after the coming of white people, who brought diseases that actually preceded them in moving through the continent and decimating the populations. These disasters—one has to compare them to natural or human-made holocausts—must have decimated the cultures as well, and it must have seemed easiest to maintain simple versions of once more complex musical repertories, ceremonies, or events. So I'd like to think of the complex musical structures that we can now experience as remnants of a sort—developed further again, and hybridized with European musical styles and values—of a once perhaps magnificent urban and court musical culture.
On the Concept and Origin of Music
From the beginning, the ancestors of ethnomusicologists believed that all societies had music. Going back to Alexander Ellis, who wrote in 1885, saying that all musics were equally natural and equally “musics,” and ever since, we have never gone along with people who said, about anything, “you call that music? It’s not music to my ears,” and we appreciated those not quite agreed with Longfellow when he wrote, “music is the universal language of mankind,” preferring to think "music is universal, but it is comprised of a lot of distinct music." In certain ways, of course that's true. But in recent years I've come to believe that the matter is more complicated. Without going into much detail, I now might argue that: music is not “one” thing; music did not have one origin, “having” music means something different to many of the world’s cultures, something different from what it means to us.
Well, just a bit of detail: What is music, and what makes a sound musical? If you look in English language dictionaries, you get definitions that tell you about Western music. But it's hard to fashion a definition that applies to all music in the world and might be accepted by all cultures. But the situation is more difficult: Not all of the world's societies recognize music as a category of thought. Not many, I mean to say, actually have a word for "music." For example, the Blackfoot people, whom I have just mentioned, had a word, saapup, which included singing, dancing, and ritual. In the Persian language, there is a word for music, musiqi, but it applies most to instrumental music and would not be applied to chanting or singing the Koran, or certain other forms of non-metric vocal music, which would be called khandan. I think it’s fair to say that for Persians, various sounds are music to a greater or lesser degree. Various African societies have terms for individual genres of music but don't consider them sufficiently the same thing to have a term for all of them together. Steven Feld (1982), studying the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, found that they had a five-part taxonomy of sound—speech, poetry, song, bird-song, and weeping, all of them somehow musical to us. But we in Western urban academic culture accept any sound as music if it occurs in a musical social context such as a concert. Like the almost infinite sounds produced in electronic music.
Some years ago, I attended a conference about the origins of music, sponsored by a Swedish institute of Biomusicology, in Florence (see Wallin at al. 2000). Most of the participants weren't musicians or musicologists, but psychologists, animal-communication scientists, linguists, students of prenatal humans, biological anthropologists. I learned a great deal, but found myself always in a minority, suggesting that when these scientists compared bird-song and whale sounds to music, their point of departure was their experience of Western music, its sound and its conception. So they said that the complex communication sounds of whales were like music, but they didn't say the same thing for dogs, which also have complex sound communication systems, because the whales make sounds that sound to us more like our music.
These scientists argued about different sources of music, much as the nineteenth-century scholars considered music as coming from mating calls, long-distance communication, rhythmic labor, or motional speech. In 1990's Florence, some thought that music is a biological adaptation helping in mating; others, a way of facilitating cooperation and bonding; others, as a way of frightening enemies; others, as a way of communicating with supernatural sources, and maybe of expressing sorrow and despair; others again, as a way for mothers to bond with children prenatally and in infancy.
All of these made sense, and all of them represent some kind of sound-production of which many, maybe most, societies partake. There are love songs, and there is virtuosic solo music, widely known as a way to meet girls; there are military bands, the descendants perhaps of battle cries; there is choral singing, patriotic or spiritual, to help people express their ethnic or religious identity; there is religious and ceremonial music with which we pray or glorify; there are lullabies sung to children sometimes before they are born; and also laments and funeral music.
But does it necessarily make sense to believe that all of these came from one idea, one invention, if you will? I would venture a guess that each of these kinds of sound developed independently, perhaps as a biological adaptation, and that many cultures came to use all of them, but didn't necessarily combine them as a concept. I would suggest that only in certain cultures were they seen, eventually, as belonging together. So I would maintain that the things that constitute music are part of human nature, part of biology. Combining them to provide a single concept, "music," is part of culture, or rather, belongs to certain cultures.
Well, as you know, ethnomusicology is the field that tries to study the world's musics from a relativistic and perhaps comparative viewpoint, and that investigates the ways music interacts with other domains of culture and of life. And my guesses at what might have been the origins of music are necessarily informed by the fact that the world's musics are incredibly diverse; we can find more differences than commonalities. And further, that the world's societies are very different in their conceptions of music—of the kinds of things that we in Western culture call music. And so I think that this explanation of the origin of music comes closest to making sense to me.
When I was a student around 1950, early comparative musicologists and even more, folk music scholars, were very concerned with authenticity. This term was used to denote what was truly representative of a culture, something that had been there from the beginnings, something that all members of a society shared. One of the scholars who was everyone's model was Béla Bartók, in his role as a leading folk song researcher, who, in his collecting of Hungarian and other East European folk songs, wanted to be sure that he found, and presented, the songs that were the true heritage of the villagers, not some recent import, not something concocted by urban composers, or developed as a result of modernized contacts. Influenced in part by Bartók (e.g., 1931), George Herzog, like many others among the few scholars involved in such matters around 1950, taught that one should study the authentic music of Africans, Oceanians, European villages, and Native Americans, not what had developed in recent times as a result of contact with white people. He certainly didn't think one could learn anything from the ways non-Native composers used Native materials. And he didn't think that ethnomusicologists should be interested in popular music, in part because of its commercial basis, but more, I suspect, because it was almost inevitably the result of cultural mixes.
Although at the same time there were a few scholars, mainly coming from anthropology, and mainly motivated by their interest in African American musics, who were beginning to look at the ways musics in contact interacted, the view presented by George Herzog—and incidentally also by many folklorists—reflected the norm. They were interested in going to the roots, looking back beyond the modern era, trying to see what a kind of imaginary culture of the folk, of isolated villagers would have been like.
Well if you compare that view with ethnomusicology as we see it today, the difference is like night and day. Looking at the programs of ethnomusicological meetings, I am struck by the emphasis on two things: Popular music all over the world, meaning music that is mass-mediated; and how things have changed, what recent developments can be noted and interpreted.
How did we get there? My own conversion from hard-nosed authenticity-seeking came soon after my studies were completed, when I moved to Detroit and was confronted with musical cultures of minority immigrants from Europe and Asia, and realized that two things were worthy of study: how some of these populations maintained and preserved forms of their music, styles, and songs, that had been abandoned and changed in the old country; and the opposite, how the immigrant experience with its changes in lifestyle, its urbanization, and its multifarious intercultural contacts would produce a much changed musical culture. A lot of people were interested in this kind of an approach, of course. But it intersects with another change, from the study of unicultural to multicultural venues.
Before around 1950, the norm for ethnomusicological and anthropological fieldwork was the village or small tribal society. This was the focus of the early anthropologists doing extensive fieldwork such as Boas, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and I guess of the earliest collectors of non-Western music. Even scholars involved with musics that were practiced in urban venues—Indian or Japanese classical traditions, for example—looked at these musics as isolated phenomena. The model for ethnomusicological contemplation was the village or the small tribal community, or maybe the isolated urban ethnic group, and we thought of musical culture as something in which all people shared, of repertories which were known to all in a small society, of musical contexts known to all. I know, that was totally unrealistic, but I think we tended to regard this as a kind of primordial ideal, a norm, from which many peoples then departed. And in 1950, such departures were seen as violations of authenticity, undesirable and unworthy of study. The term “spoiled” was often used in discussing intercultural contacts. Look at Bartók’s division of Hungarian folk music into an old and a new style, both authentic, and a third, “mixed genera,” a large, heterogeneous repertory which he largely ignored.
Well, things have completely turned around in the last fifty years, for me and maybe everybody. The vast majority of studies involved music in which cultures, genres, repertories, styles, musicians interact. In 1950, the study of popular music would have been a kind of no-no. Now, the vast majority of studies is about music that could be classed as "popular."
Performing Their Music, Doing Them Some Good?
For ethnomusicologists in Hornbostel's generation, or of his students born around the turn of the century like maybe Herzog, Kolinski, Marius Schneider, Ernst Emsheimer, it would have been quite strange to consider learning—from informants or from recordings—how to play or sing the music they were researching. Crossing these kinds of cultural boundaries was as strange to them as contemplating musics that had intercultural roots about which I have just mentioned. Students of European folk music might have taken an only slightly less extreme attitude. Then, in the 1950s, the notion of learning Asian canonic musics in the field, and then in the classroom, was pioneered by Mantle Hood (1971), and in academic programs at UCLA, Wesleyan, Washington, Michigan, and other schools. Now we consider this central to fieldwork and education (for further background, see Solis 2004).
I have to confess that at first I was ambivalent about these practices. As a way of learning in the field, or of teaching by a native authority, sure. But would this turn into a Western academic concert tradition which would develop its own practices, informed by Western norms? Would American gamelans still be properly Indonesian music? Would we be presenting East Asian ensembles to American and European audiences with the modest degree of expertise comparable, say, to having Western orchestral music represented in other cultures by seventh-grade orchestras? And would the Western norms of gamelan and gagaku playing adversely affect the musical cultures of Indonesia and Japan? Would the emphasis on this kind of music be a kind of spoiling of traditions? I see the concept of "authenticity" raising its hand. Well, some of these worries seem to me to have been justified, but they have been vastly exceeded by the benefits of performance study as a major factor in education and fieldwork. On balance, of course, the study of musics through performance has been enormously successful—to put it mildly. So, I have had not only second but third and fourth thoughts.
And still, I think we would be right to maintain just a little bit of ambivalence. My cautionary example comes from my own institution, at which a colleague (now deceased) who was not active in any kind of -ology wished to have us purchase a gamelan. He would direct it, although he had done nothing beyond listening to recordings. What's the difference whether it is authentic according to Indonesian musicians, he would ask. We would be making good and interesting music, that's all that was important to him. Not an easy point to argue; I can certainly sympathize with that view in some respects. But I doubt that one could have called it a way of studying ethnomusicology.
But learning how to perform from our native teachers and consultants, getting permission to play in their ensembles, puts us on a completely different footing from the scholars working before 1950. This is one way in which the entire discipline has had second thoughts. Inevitably, we face the question: You are studying with these people, learning what they can teach. But is this doing them any good?
It's a question that came up once in a while when I was a student, and the conventional wisdom involved not doing things that might hurt an informant, to make payments and be generous. Emphasis might be on individual ethics. The notion that the profession of ethnomusicologists ought to be concerned with doing somebody some good really didn't come up. Less, I think, because of thoughtlessness, but more on account of modesty. What could a small group of totally powerless people on the outskirts of a peripheral field possibly do to help anyone?
Some of my teachers among the Blackfoot people thought I might make a lot of money selling recordings of their songs. A lot they knew! But on the other hand, I certainly did—as did all of us—build careers and made a living as a result of what these teachers did for us. This was perhaps an advance over the situation as I think it may have been in the 1930s and earlier, when scholars concentrated on the music, the songs, wishing to preserve them and to understand them, and paying less attention to the people whose property they ultimately were. And I guess the early scholars in our field thought that calling attention to non-western musics, preserving them, maybe encouraging their people to preserve, had these were what I am calling “doing those people some good.”
If the issue didn't become prominent in the 1950s, it did begin to play an important role among American ethnomusicologists in the 1970s, when intercultural relationships among musicians and scholars intensified, and the Society for Ethnomusicology, under leadership of Mark Slobin, Fred Lieberman, and Nazir Jairazbhoy, began to deal with the issue of “ethics.” I confess it required a long time for me to take this issue seriously, but clearly the change in attitude on my part and on that of the field as a whole amounts to a gradual but definitive U-turn.
In my first field experience with Blackfoot people, my consultants and teachers wanted to be paid for recording and for their time, for lessons and interviews, quite reasonably, although I know that earlier collectors regarded payment as somehow inappropriate, making research into a commercial operation. Later, the question of what good I am doing to the Blackfoot people as a whole came up. Ought I not be trying to help them to do for themselves what I was trying to do—collect, analyze, and interpret? Well, I ended up trying to establish an archive of historic Blackfoot recordings on the reservation, and I think it's still there, though probably not growing. I do feel that for some Blackfoot singers, the idea that an outside academic thought their material to be of interest was encouraging; to some others, it was seen as a kind of intrusion. Nevertheless, it's our job to do the musicians with whom we work some good. But just what that should be is sometimes unclear.
My experience in Iran was quite different, because the musicians with whom I worked, performers and teachers of the traditional classical music, were not a discriminated minority like the Blackfoot, but a respected group of artists who, however, were not seen as beneficial to society by all of their compatriots. Certainly the people who taught me and made recordings for me expected to be paid, with the exception of my principal teacher, Dr. Boroumand, who came from a wealthy family. His attitude was curiously ambivalent: He did not want me to share what I had learned from him with other Iranian musicians, tended generally to be secretive. I had no particular idea of what I would do after my fieldwork was complete, but one day he said to me, “when you go back to America, are you going to write a book about Persian music?” I said I had no such plans—and at the time I did not. “Oh, but you must,” he said, emphasizing that it was my job to let the world know about the great music of Persian culture. He felt I had an obligation to do Iranian music some good, and this was how he defined it. He also wished to have me present his personal view and version of his music, saying—after he understood that I was recording performances by other musicians—that he expected me to show why he was so much better than the others.
In my days in Iran, research on Persian music was being carried out by foreigners, and by a small number of Iranian scholars trained in Germany, France, and USA. I think that we outsiders did some good by showing he Iranian scholars some of the methods that can be imposed, if you will, on the music and in the study of performers, so that today, there is a substantial school of Iranian ethnomusicologists doing research and teaching.
As revealed here, doing somebody some good was very different in Blackfoot country and in Iran. I would just add that when I was studying in South India, “doing us some good” could be defined by first, getting things right, accepting their teaching and not misinterpreting them; and then, helping them and their students and perhaps sons and nephews come to the United States to perform and to study.
Well, you can see that “are you doing these people any good” has to be answered differently wherever you work and study. But for me, I have to say that my attitude has changed greatly: When I began, I didn't see how I could possibly do any good to a musical culture—perhaps I could pay individuals, but that was hardly what was meant by this expression. I saw myself and my fellow-students as powerlessly groping for ways to enter the culture. Today, if I were still doing fieldwork, I'd try from scratch to find native collaborators to join in the ethnomusicological enterprise, and that is certainly what many of my younger colleagues are doing. The profession of ethnomusicology as a group of people has changed enormously in this area, away from the notion that it is the study of a culture by outsiders.
There are plenty of other ways in which I've had second thoughts, had to change my mind; and important ways in which the profession of ethnomusicologists has turned corners. I must stop and try to summarize. For myself, and maybe for some of my colleagues in my generation, I hope I can make a case for the suggestion that we have had flexibility, and so my last point is that in looking at the history of our field we should avoid stereotyping. We sometimes, thinking of the early figures in our field, say things like: Oh yes, Hornbostel: he was an armchair ethnomusicologist who spent his time making comparisons; Curt Sachs, oh yes, he was attached to the Kulturkreis school; George Herzog, he collected, transcribed, and analyzed, and summarized on the music of songs. Frances Densmore, she recorded like mad and made transcriptions which weren't very good but paid no attention to music in culture. But actually, all of these people did a lot more, accomplished a variety of things, and changed their minds perhaps many times about many things throughout their careers. I have certainly had to change my mind, to have second thoughts, about many things, and hope it will be seen as a result not of inconsistency but of hopefully finally getting something right.
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