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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Beautiful, the Ugly, The Good … ánd the Bad

I promised to write a blog on “dialogic research” and “advocacy” in ethnomusicology. So there we go.
In ethnomusicology, the main concern seems of old to be the music of “the other” – music of non-western cultures rather than western, folk music rather than classical music. Understanding the other, and taking care of the world’s diversity of “others”, are main points on the agenda of ethnomusicology.
With understanding the other comes a connected move: trying to acknowledge that other music may seem strange but is in reality beautiful – as long as you know how to listen. And with taking care of the diversity the world’s musics also comes a connected move: a tendency to protect other musics from abuse, or even extinction. Hence the attention for advocacy (in favor of endangered musics) and of dialogue (with the musickers of the endangered participants, in order to make advocacy a shared – and not a paternalistic-colonial – undertaking).
I am wholly in favor of both points. Nevertheless, I also have my doubts. Those doubts are connected to the suggestion that advocacy and dialogic research are essential to ethnomusicology – that the ethics underlying both are a product of the discipline of ethnomusicology. I think that such a stance – which I do notice in some of the advocates of advocacy – is actually upside down.
That has probably to do with my view on what ethnomusicology is. For me its main objective is to understand music as a social practice. That is a different definition than studying “music in/as (the other’s) culture”, one of the standing definitions of ethnomusicology.
If you consider ethnomusicology to be the study of music as social practice, the question of how to acclaim other musics as equally beautiful and worthwhile as your own becomes redundant in a way. Aesthetic considerations are not forefronted – they are just one of the elements of the social practice of musicking. If that is the case, then Ugly music is just as worthwhile to be studied as Beautiful music – both are social practices, aren’t they?
This may seem trivial, but if you take good care you will find that in most ethnomusicological studies there is a, sometimes very implicit, tendency to take as examples “good” musicians and  “worthwhile” music – the best representatives of what is researched, the most interesting, the most authentic, the most revered. Less attention is paid to for example the mediocre musician or the outright bad performance. Hence the fact that, when it comes to studying western culture, ethnomusicologists study conservatoires (representing the top of the professional-aesthetic pyramid of education) rather than primary schools, and the Early Music World in Boston rather than the one in Uithuizermeeden. And this does not only count for ethnomusicologists: when Eric Clarke wants to show that an ecological view on music perception works, he also applies it to popular music, which is a step in the right direction, but then takes Jimi Hendrix’ “Star Spangled Banner” as an example, rather than the Bay City Rollers. This may not always be serious but one has to keep in mind that often there is an unequal social distribution of “musical excellence” over the members of a society. Overlooking the mediocre may mean not being attentive to a considerable part of society’s members.
So far the Beautiful and the Ugly. Now the Good and the Bad – and this is where my doubts about dialogue and advocacy as essential to ethnomusicology come in. If ethnomusicology wants to understand music as a social practice, then it should study musical social practices. Good practices. And Bad practices. Both teach us a lot on what music means in our lives. So yes, we should study the way music is a positive force in expressing minority identities for example, thus giving oppressed individuals a powerful voice for social action. But we should also study those practices where music is used to oppress people, to harm people, to kill people. You may read back my very first blog, which basically expresses the same thought. Music is not inherently good, it is good for nothing. It just ís (Heidegger creeping in, here?).
Now the main question on advocacy and dialogue. If advocacy and dialogue were essential to ethnomusicology as a discipline ánd ethnomusicology were the study of music as social practice, then dialogue and advocacy should also be part of the Bad practices we study. So if we study the way right-wing parties or movements in Europe use music to obtain their political goals (which we should do, as ethnomusicologists), I wonder about the forms dialogue and advocacy would take in that particular case.
That is why I think that ethics seen as an implication of ethnomusicology is a thought in the wrong order. Only if ethnomusicology is defined on the basis of a preceding ethical stance, dialogue and advocacy follow from ethnomusicology. But that would imply a serious restriction in the subjects we would be able to study – we would only be able to study subjects which in some would adhere to our ethical principles. And we would miss the understanding of a part of the musical world that must be understood.
Therefore I think the line of thought is: ethnomusicology studies music as a social practice; dialogue and advocacy are not inherently part of that kind of study, but are the result of ethical decisions of the researcher on the basis of the study of music as social practice combined with ethical principles. And thus a form of applied ethnomusicology, as opposed to the non-applied character of the study of music as social practice. And, to avoid misunderstanding: I propagate both – but not necessarily at the same time. Not all ethnomusicology is applied, and non-applied ethnomusicology is also worth something.
One final thought, which came up while running along Long Pond, here in St John’s, Newfoundland: the attention to the Beautiful in ethnomusicology may well be a result of the musicological heritage within ethnomusicology, whereas the attention to the Good could be the anthropological heritage. And I guess the Bad as well as the Ugly come in via an inspiration from sociology.
Should I do less running?

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