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The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music and the Application of Meta-Critical Scholarship on Ethnography: Reinscribing Critical Distance

Pace, I. ORCID: 0000-0002-0047-9379 (2020). The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music and the Application of Meta-Critical Scholarship on Ethnography: Reinscribing Critical Distance. Paper presented at the Colloquium, 28 Oct 2020, Cambridge, UK.


A branch of ethnomusicology no longer focuses on music, musical and cultural practices either outside of the Western world or in Western communities who continue to practice vernacular traditions with significant histories of their own. Instead, its practitioners apply ethnographic methods, generally developed in these former contexts, to the study of Western Art Music. A moderate-sized canonical tradition of this type of work has grown, beginning with Robert Faulkner’s 1973 study of perceived hierarchies between orchestral players and conductors, and Catherine M. Cameron’s 1982 dissertation on ‘experimentalism’ in American music, then key works of Christopher Small, Henry Kingsbury, Ruth Finnegan, Bruno Nettl, Georgina Born, Kay Kaufman Shelemay and others. Subsequent writers invariably pay homage to this body of work, almost as if it were a catechism, whilst many of the same waste few opportunities to assert the superiority of their approaches to most other branches of musicology, usually characterised as homogeneous and utterly oblivious to any issues of social or cultural context.

In the wider fields of ethnography and anthropology, however, a lively and robust self-critical discourse has proceeded over four decades, beginning with critiques in the 1980s of what was labelled ‘ethnographic realism’. Major methodological work on ethnography, from diverse and sometimes irreconcilable perspectives, can be found in the work of George E. Marcus, James Clifford, Martyn Hammersley, John van Maanen, Charles Kurzman, Harry F. Wolcott, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Tim Ingold, and Mitchell Duneier, some of whom have been prepared to look more critically at classic anthropological work of the likes of Bronisław Malinkowski and Margaret Mead, as well as that of more recent figures. Furthermore, in 2018, law professor Steve Lubet published his important Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters, after being dismayed by the generally uncritical reception of Alice Goffman’s study of low-income African-American communities, On the Run, which Lubet felt violated fundamental scholarly and ethical principles of research.

Other than through a nod in the direction of the 1980s ‘postmodern turn’ informing a few of the writers from this time, very little of this work appears even to have registered in writings on the ethnography/ethnomusicology of Western Art Music. In this paper, I will give an overview of this meta-critical field and the key issues it raises, and also briefly of the body of ethnographic literature on Western Art Music, in which I identify two key phases: the first characterised in many cases by outright hostility on the part of the ethnographer to the field studied (as with Kingsbury, Nettl, Christopher Small and Born); the second overwhelmingly by supposedly disinterested ‘description’ (in reality a long way from Clifford Geertz’s idea of ‘thick description’), and generally taking the word of subjects at face value (as anticipated in the work of Finnegan, and developed in that of Shelemay, Stephen Cottrell, Amanda Bayley and Michael Clarke and Pirko Moisala). I focus on several key points: central amongst them Duneier’s conception of an ‘ethnographic trial’, and some of the conclusions of Lubet. I also consider how an attitude entailing some degree of deferential humility towards the subjects studied may make some sense in a situation in which there is a clear power differential between the ethnographer and their subjects, when the same attitudes and methods – not least such as entail large quantities of quotations presented without any critical analysis – are transplanted to a non-colonial situation, as with much of the work in question, the result can simply become hagiography. I also make brief mention of the problems of a field so beset by territorialism that it must disregard almost all methods for analysing aural data, leading to what I have elsewhere called ‘musicology without ears’, and also a concomitant antipathy towards historical methods, thus running the real risk of reification, in line with earlier anthropology dealing with purportedly ‘timeless’ communities. I maintain and defend the value of ethnographic approaches, but argue that they constitute a supplementary method to an extensive and diverse field of existing musicology, and in no way supplant it. Above all, I maintain the importance of musicologists’ maintaining a proper critical perspective upon their field of study, together with a critical distance from their subjects, an especial challenge when these are contemporary.

Publication Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Additional Information: Copyright the author, 2020.
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity > Performing Arts > Music
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