The last few years have seen the beginnings of an interdiscipline in music studies that has been labelled the “New Cultural History of Music”. Lying at the intersection of musicology and history “proper” and, in theory, open to the non-West and to the mass, popular and marginal, it has recently been monumentalised in the Oxford Handbook to the New Cultural History of Music (2011) and an important new OUP monograph series of the same name. But what productive relations might the new cultural history of music have – or not have – with ethnomusicology, currently experiencing its own archival turn? And what of method: what might the long experience of historical musicologists in the archives teach historically minded ethnomusicologists? What might ethnomusicology’s sensitivity to the nuances of difference, or its long orientation to music as medium rather than object, have to offer the new cultural history of music, beyond an insistence that we are dealing with histories, plural?
The other side of my coin concerns the significant emergence in the last couple of decades of a new cultural history of early-modern India, with revelatory interventions especially from scholars of literature, religion, art, and courtly cultures that are changing irrevocably how we perceive the “harder-edged” (and more prestigious) fields of political and economic history. But, with the occasional exception – pieces by Kumkum Chatterjee, Jon Barlow and Lakshmi Subramanian, Francesca Orsini, Aditya Behl, for example – little concerted effort has so far been made to unmute early-modern sound worlds. If ethnomusicologists genuinely believe that music, with its excess of affect and virtuosic multiplicity of possible meanings, has the capacity to say things about human societies and cultures that words cannot express, how can we use our musical expertise to bring out hitherto hidden contrapuntal voices that might deepen and alter the harmony of familiar historical songs? Crucially, how can we even tell the histories of an ephemeral medium like sound, which is lost forever once the moment of performance is gone? For the last century we have sound recordings to anchor our analysis – but what of early-modern soundworlds, for which we have copious written sources but only heavily muffled access to the sounds themselves? How can ethnomusicologists and Indian cultural historians create a resonating chamber that might enable echoes of sonic histories long passed into silence to reverberate once again?
More to the point, why has this not already been done?
Imagine, for a moment, that Johann Sebastian Bach was today revered as one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, and that his compositions were still performed by all the best contemporary performers, and anecdotes about his life widely circulated. Imagine, too, that we possess good archival records for his life and work, both from his own time and from that of his students and successors over many generations. Now imagine that today’s musicologists are not particularly interested in Bach as a historical figure, or in contextualising his work in its times, or even simply in reading those archival records, to the extent that they don’t even know for sure whether C P E Bach was J S Bach’s son or his brother, and they don’t care enough to find out. More curiously still, most of these musicologists are not very interested even in Bach’s corpus of works; his name is little more than a cipher in the literature validating the venerable age of the contemporary performance tradition.
With only a little exaggeration, this is the situation that pertains to the greatest North Indian composer of the early-modern period, Bach’s exact contemporary Ni‘amat Khan Sadarang (fl. 1700-40). And there is absolutely no objective reason why this should be the case; why, though many have touched on his life (Barlow and Subramanian, Allyn Miner, myself), ethnomusicologists should never have written Sadarang’s history. Admittedly, the sources we have for his life are less extensive than the archive we possess for Bach; and as the notation system for Indian music is skeletal in comparison with staff notation, it’s hard to verify what Sadarang’s songs sounded like before the advent of commercial recording in India in 1902. But there is plenty enough archival material – we even have a contemporary painting of him – for a decent cultural history of Sadarang; or even an old-fashioned life and works. In fact the latter would be entirely appropriate; there’s a whole genre of early-modern Indian literature, the tazkira, expressly dedicated to life and works. So what’s the obstacle?
A big part of the problem has to do with the methodological blind spots of ethnomusicology as a discipline. If, for example, we take the Oxford Handbook as representative of the new cultural histories of music project, it is striking that only one of its 23 chapters takes a non-Western musical system as a case study: Joseph Lam’s “State sacrificial music and cultural-political discourse in Southern Song China”. (Philip Bohlman’s chapter on that most quintessential of Europeans, Gottfried Herder, doesn’t count, though Bohlman himself is exceptional in ethnomusicology, I think, in the synergy of his work with cultural history.) I don’t, however, think this absence was due to exclusionary tendencies or for lack of trying: the related OUP monograph series is avowedly inclusive, with two of its current nine volumes, including the first, Vanessa Agnew’s Enlightenment Orpheus: The Power of Music in Other Worlds, expressly extra-European in orientation. No: I think the compilers were stumped. So what’s the problem?
In principle, ethnomusicology should be well placed to offer much of substance and insight to the new cultural histories of music. Cultural history as a whole drew much of its initial impetus from anthropology, particularly that of Clifford Geertz; and ethnomusicology has long specialised in the anthropological study of music in culture, as culture, as a mediator of culture, developing extensive tools and approaches over the decades to deal with the subtleties of difference and the subjective distance between scholar and source – all key problematics of the new cultural histories. Ethnomusicology’s continuing emphasis on music’s social grounding could indeed contribute productively to the recent reintegration of the social into cultural history. Moreover, it’s not as if ethnomusicologists weren’t interested in history; the past, tradition, preservation, change, memory, nostalgia – all these and more have been central issues in ethnomusicology for decades. And since the beginning of the discipline, a small but often highly distinguished minority, such as Henry Farmer, Lawrence Picken, Owen Wright and Richard Widdess, have specialised in “historical ethnomusicology”, which might generally be defined as the historical study of global (mostly Asian) art-music systems through musicological analysis of written treatises and notations.
Most recently, within the last decade or so, contemporary ethnomusicology has begun to undergo a serious archival turn. With more than a century of recorded sound to re-consider, certain ethnomusicologists, especially (again) of Asian art-music traditions and colonial contexts, have been turning to written and visual archives alongside the oral and the aural and begun asking the same kinds of questions as cultural historians of other times, places and phenomena – and, critically, being joined in their investigations by scholars trained as historians. In the field of South Asia, this synergy has resulted in outstanding studies of the effects of colonialism and nationalism on the modernisation of both North and South Indian classical musics at the turn of the 20C by ethnomusicologists Gerry Farrell and Amanda Weidman and historians Janaki Bakhle and Lakshmi Subramanian. Many of the concerns identified as key in the new cultural history of music, such as the construction of identity; the body, gender, sexuality, race; subjectivity and the shaping of the self; nationalism, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism; urban, aural and print culture; and politics, aesthetics and transmission, permeate this new work. One can easily bracket this new South Asian music history with the new cultural histories of music, and also of India.
Yet nonetheless, in my view, a truly ethnomusicological approach to the cultural history of music still has not yet emerged in the discipline. What do I mean by that? Firstly, I make a distinction here – perhaps debatably – between the long established concerns of historical ethnomusicology, which are primarily musicological (admirably and crucially so), and the chrysalid cultural histories of those same art-music systems. The difference, as I see it, is that between a piece of carved jade and a clear glass prism – the study of music as a beautiful and important cultural object in and of itself, versus the study of music predominantly as a lens to illuminate the rest of the world. Both modes of historical study are critically important and frequently complementary, and there has not been anywhere near enough of the former in most cases to even start on the latter. But I do consider them to be substantively different kinds of enterprise.
Secondly, the curious thing for me about the concerns of the new cultural histories of music is how presentist they are. This is generally fair enough, I think, of history in ethnomusicology: a) because ethnomusicologists have rarely ventured earlier than the twentieth century in any case; and b) precisely because of the overwhelming concerns of the bulk of the discipline with the present, and the impact on the present of the immediate past. With respect to India, much of the recent historical work I’ve noted has at its heart a valid and necessary desire to expose nationalists’ deliberate construction of North and South India’s contemporary classical traditions as “ancient, Hindu arts”, and to reposition them as colonial products to a lesser or greater degree. But historians of earlier soundworlds (and I include myself here) do not have such an excuse. Surely, as cultural historians seeking to illuminate the very different life-worlds of the past, we should at least recognise presentist concerns for what they are, and try to resist them where they are not relevant to our primary sources? Should we not approach the archives of the past as we do the living fields of the present: alive to difference, and its scholarly pleasures and dangers? Here I invoke two of the most powerful portents in the life-world of early-modern North Indian Muslim men – ‘ajā’ib o gharā’ib, wonders and strange things, or the weird and the wonderful – to suggest ways we might make our cultural histories of earlier soundworlds less presentist – and paradoxically more ethnomusicological.
Take, for instance, music’s relationship with identity (sexuality, gender, race, class, caste, nation, etc). This has been an overwhelmingly dominant topic in the last several decades of ethnomusicology, new musicology and now the new cultural history of music, because we fundamentally believe that “music provides a significant mode of access to questions of cultural identity”. We understand music to be the voice of the individual or collective soul; after Herder, we collectively take this to be gospel truth. But what if we consider a culture, like that of Mughal India, in which music’s mediation of identity was at most a very minor undercurrent of beliefs about music, if even that? Rather, music was overwhelmingly thought about in terms of its power over the natural world and everything in it. Music didn’t envoice some kind of authentic internal identity, it did things: it was efficacious, powerful. Certainly, Mughal men recognised that Hindustani music was different from Persian music or Ottoman music, and that if you expressed a preference for the music of the bazaar in formal company your companions might think you were an arriviste. But what was most important to them was that all music, but especially elite, theorised music, caused particular effects in the body and had particular supernatural powers that were proven by physiological, mathematical and astronomical science – powers not just over the gay body, or the Indian body, but all human bodies; and not just over human bodies but over animal bodies; and not just over humans and animals, but over trees and rocks and the weather and seasons, and indeed over the whole fortune of the world: politics, science, nature, culture, everything.
Where do you start when you finally enter into a world in which identity just doesn’t have the discursive or affective power it does today – a world where music’s job was to conjure up weird wonders? As cultural historians with an ethnomusicological bent, we can no longer justify looking at musical treatises in empirical isolation, or decide to start from present-day certainties, to write ethnographies of such a world. Like New Historicists, we have to look across and between genres and languages and media to begin to see the patterns of the Mughal soundworld taking shape. I guess that mine is a plea to start with the proposition that past musical worlds are weirder and more wonderful than we might ever have realised – and to be pleasantly surprised when we occasionally discover “strange parallels” between worlds, in the words of Victor Lieberman. For it’s not that long ago that Europeans, too, were Pythagoreans, Galenicists and Neo-Platonists in our understanding of music’s place in the world. And that strange parallel, between the world of Elizabeth and the world of Akbar, is, to me, the one that is perhaps the weirdest and most wonderful of all.