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Cultural musicology

Why, what and how

Why cultural musicology? It seems like a rather silly question, and the counter question, why not, is perhaps more appropriate. Slowly, over the past fifty years or so, the idea of cultural musicology has been gathering momentum. Gradually we have come across the expression more and more often. I would suggest that Adler’s scheme was really a bit off the mark. If we go back in time, and also if we look at music and musical thought around the world, thinking about music seems to take on two main perspectives; the meaning of it and the form. The meaning of music is about agency, it investigates what music does to man and the world, but it also looks at music as a medium of communication between self and other, between man and cosmos. All this is typically the domain of cultural musicology, and it also encompasses philosophy of music, critical musicology, anthropology of music and music sociology, to mention a few. The form of music is encoded in what we usually call music theory, which comprises also acoustics, music cognition, systematic musicology and psychology of music. These two perspectives are not exclusive, on the contrary, they need each other. The relation between form and content, between structure and meaning is probably one of the trickiest challenges in musicology. So what happened to historical musicology in this story? In my opinion history is very much part of both cultural and systematic musicology. As a separate ‘branch’ it is a relative newcomer, and like the cultural and systematic perspectives it does not exist independently. History? History of what? Precisely!

The idea of cultural musicology is not to create yet another branch of musicology that needs to set itself apart from established branches. Rather, it attempts to unify a number of existing streams under one umbrella. The view I propose is of a musicology that can investigate any type of music in any part of the world (much along the lines of Charles Seeger). Within that ‘unified’ field we recognise different dimensions, one of which is the cultural.

Cultural musicology is not a club, a society or a ‘church’. As a terrain it is not bounded, there are no fences around it. We could call it a perspective, but let’s attempt not to use blinders. We speak of aural perspectives, which is kind of a strange combination (apparently we don’t have a more appropriate word, though surely some language somewhere, in a culture that places the auditive at a higher rank, must have such a word), and let us remember that light travels in a straight line but that sound can bend it better than Beckham.

Understanding world hearings – aural world perspectives, if you will, in which music is the funnel through which we make sense of the world, is the central quest of cultural musicology. Cultural musicology, which integrates methods and approaches from ethnomusicology, the anthropology of music and new musicology, can be understood both as the cultural analysis of music and the musical analysis of culture. The cultural analysis of music, at first sight, may not be very enigmatic, but let me just say that cultural analysis is not quite the same as cultural studies. This is not the place to go into that, but this link could elucidate the matter. The musical analysis of culture may raise the eyebrows a little higher, but perhaps what the late Adam Krims used to say helps, that music is perhaps the best lens through which we can look at culture, or as I like to reformulate this idea, the best funnel through which we can hear culture.

Studying music in its cultural frames on a potentially world wide scale and focussing on the present and its recent history necessarily brings with it a distinctly postcolonial perspective. European music was propagated in large parts of the world, sometimes eradicating indigenous music, in other cases leading to hybridizations and generating new forms. But contemporary ‘musickers’ around the world, in both classical and popular traditions, also have engaged with ‘Other’ music on a large scale. As such, musical ideas travelled and created new meanings, much like the ‘travelling concepts’ of Mieke Bal.

In cultural musicology music has often been studied as a means of identity construction. It is rather obvious that people around the world revel in making (imagined and invented) music that furnishes them with a cultural comfort zone. But how are identities constructed in a cultural in-between? As a corollary of the postcolonial cultural flows and hybridization the emergence of new identities in music is another focus of music and culture.

Finally, music is necessarily mediated, primarily through the musicker (including the listener and his body), and secondly through all sorts of records; written scores, wax cylinders, shellac discs, radio, LPs, magnetic tapes and cassettes, television, CDs and the internet. In the twenty-first century music cultures heavily rely on these technologies and many new music cultures depend entirely on them, existing without a live counterpart.

Thus, cultural musicology investigates the interactions and negotiations of local and global cultural flows, paying special attention to the construction of identities and the mediation of hybridizing processes leading to the emergence of new meanings in new world hearings as a result of music’s travels.

Understanding world hearings, knowing culture through music, cannot be realized through a confined Eurocentric approach that was the hallmark of comparative musicology and largely also ethnomusicology. The different ‘musico-logicas’ of the world therefore play a salient role in cultural musicology. Analyzing music around the world with the tools of European musicology, with its heavy reliance on transcriptions in staff-notation simply will not do. Not only must indigenous methodologies be applied, but in addition the development of new methods of analysis through negotiations between music cultures will be necessary.

If cultural musicology is a discipline it must also have a method. Perhaps the best way of defining this is along the lines that Pollock used to delineate the methodology of cultural analysis. She mentions the following three central elements: transdisciplinarity, encounters and concepts. Cultural musicology draws on a large variety of methodologies, among them live research, historical methods, music theory, musical practice, acoustics, physics, performance and digital humanities. Transdisciplinarity implies that these methodologies interact rather than operate independently. The encounter with music and musicking is at the heart of our pursuit. Music is often described as a temporal art (though in the end everything is temporal), and the encounter is necessarily a live experience. We can freeze music in writing or recording, but a piece of music of one hour will take one hour to listen to, unlike a painting at which I can look for a second, an hour, or until I fall. The concepts of  music are in the first place the concepts of theory, and cultural musicology is beholden to interpret them.

Let me stress that the above ideas are in no way an attempt to define or confine cultural musicology, but rather some thoughts that could help to sketch a vague image of it (and again, sketch and image betray a visual predilection of the English and possibly many other languages of the Indo-European family).

Wim van der Meer

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