Sunday, May 20, 2007

8. On the Archaeology of Music

Whenever I speculate on certain possibilities regarding the "deep history" of music (i.e., its history prior to any of the written records), I am continually being reminded that it's a mistake to extrapolate backward, from the present situation to the past, because we cannot "go back to the past" to either observe musical performances or listen to how they sounded -- and since we are unable to do this, then we have no way of testing any theory regarding the nature of music in the past, especially the remote past. But isn't the same thing true of every aspect of history? Don't all historians and archaeologists base their theories on what is before them in the present, whether they are working in a library or a museum collection, or out in the field, examining sites, digging for fossils, etc.? It seems to me that I am doing the same thing they do, i.e., drawing inferences based on the methodological study of what I've been presented with in the present, and my understanding of its context, based on years of additional study and research, and extrapolating backward in a meaningful manner, based on those inferences.

How are inferences based on music heard on a recording different from inferences based on a fossil studied in a museum collection? It will be argued that the fossil is "old," a long dead relic of the past, while the music is "new," freshly recorded by a group of living, breathing humans. But how do we know the fossil is old? As far as the ordinary museum goer is concerned, it could be the skull of someone who died last week. An expert who examines the skull knows what to look for. The expert can make inferences about that object based on a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Similarly, how do we know the music is "new"? The composer is still living, you say, so it couldn't be that old, could it? Well, maybe not the specific composition, but most original works are rooted in a tradition, and what interests me is not the indvidual work but the tradition it represents. And there is no reason to assume that tradition is brand new simply because the composition and the performers are our contemporaries. Again, an expert can analyze that composition and that performance and make inferences regarding the age of the tradition behind it, which might, in fact, go back thousands or even tens of thousand of years. As I see it, therefore, there is really no fundamental difference between an archaeological site, a fossil, an ancient papyrus, and a brand new recording of a piece of music. None of the above presents itself to us directly and without mediation as a relic of the past. It can only be treated as such after the evidence is carefully examined and meaningful inferences are drawn.

I have also been told it is a mistake to make assumptions about the deep history of indigenous peoples, that we have no way of knowing whether or not they are still living in the same manner as their ancestors and that there is no reason to assume they haven't changed over time any less than we have. It was, indeed, once common, even among so-called "experts," to make all sorts of assumptions about "stone age," "primitive" and "backward" people, whose lifestyles were uncritically accepted as windows into the world of "early man." But there is a hyge difference between making assumptions and drawing inferences. While I completely agree that it is naive and even sometimes harmful to make assumptions about any group, it is, on the other hand, part of our responsibility as scientists and/or scholars, to collect evidence, and draw reasonable inferences based on that evidence. Arguments regarding the nature of any musical style and its meaning, historical or otherwise, should never be based on assumptions of any kind, on that I completely agree. If I treat certain musical styles as survivals from the past, it is NOT because I am making any sort of assumption about any of the peoples currently practicing such styles, who may or may not be currently living in a manner that reflects any other aspects of the way their distant ancestors lived. But I DO reserve the right to claim that the musical evidence might provide us with some clues as to the nature and history of their culture generally. Not based on assumptions, but evidence, and inferences based on that evidence.

Another objection I sometimes hear is that by suggesting that their musical practices could be survivals from the distant past, I am reducing certain indigenous groups to the status of "living fossils" and thereby "essentializing" them. And, indeed, in the past, it was not uncommon to think of such peoples in exactly that way. Our thinking has now changed, however, as has our vocabulary. We no longer use terms like "primitive" or "stone age peoples," nor do we anymore invoke "living fossils" (unless we are arguing with someone like me!). All people living today are fully alive. They are our contemporaries. No one is a "living fossil" for sure and it would be an insult to claim that anyone was. We do know, however, that certain peoples, and certain individuals, are carriers of certain traditions, traditions that could well go back thousands or tens of thousands of years, traditions valued quite highly by their own group, if not all educated, open minded people everywhere. The term sometimes used is: "Living Treasures."


Jeremy F. said...


First, let me thank you for your efforts here - in relatively few posts, you have provided some very interesting and compelling information. As a beginning ethno student, it is incredibly helpful to read and discuss a wide variety of material - especially based on current issues (such as your blog here). The SEM listserve has been another great source of information, of course.

I've been keeping up with your thoughts and assertions here, and while I certainly do not claim to know much of anything, really, I'd be interested to read a bit more on the specific situation that you would equate music heard today (either via recording or live) with fossils and other such "relics."

It would seem to me that while there are definitive methods for determining a fossil's age, that there aren't really definitive methods for doing so in relation to a music selection. Are you speaking of specific markers/elements for each musical tradition, determined by a group of experts in that particular field? How would these markers determined?

Forgive me if these questions relate to something that is widely known to those already in the field! I just want to make sure I understand part of the foundation of your assertion.

Thanks again for your efforts! I would be very interested in reading the paper you make reference to here.

Peace to you,


Victor said...

Hello, Jeremy. I'm pleased to learn that you find my blog interesing and educational and hope you'll return. The question you've raised is very much to the point -- I'll answer as best I can, but admittedly I'm not an expert on archaeology.

The first thing to say is that the "definitive methods" you mention, and I assume you are referring to methods such as carbon dating, are relatively new. An enormous amount of archaeological research preceded those methods and all sorts of dates were arrived at purely by inference before the advent of "hard science" methodologies. Many of those dates have been corrected, by the way, thanks to the new mehtods.

The second thing to say is that carbon dating is limited, first because only organic materials can be carbon dated, and second because carbon dating can only take you back so far -- as I understand it, 40,000 years or so is the limit. A great many organic fossil remains have been dated to long before that time, some going back, apparently, millions of years. And all sorts of other important relics, for example pottery, stone implements, etc., cannot be carbon dated at all. Newer technologies have been introduced, I believe, so there is the hope that in future we can be more precise -- and more confident -- with regard to such research. But for now, I'd venture to say that the great majority of dating that goes on in fields such as paleontology and archaeology is based on traditional methods, i.e., the gathering and comparison of evidence and the drawing of inferences based on that.

The third thing to say is that carbon dating and other methods of "hard science" are themselves based on chains of inference -- and sometimes some of these inferences are proven wrong and certain techniques need to be re-calibrated. In other words, as I argued in my post, there is no such thing as a relic of the past that simply presents itself as such, all such evidence needs to be mediated by some process combining evidence with logical inference.

And, yes, there is a fourth thing to be said (and then I'm done): while archaeologists can now make use of all sorts of sophisticated scientific techniques, they must nevertheless make do with a pathetically thin and sparse body of evidence that more often than not, presents itself by chance. There are huge holes in that evidence, which will probably never be completely filled. As a result, archaeology is probably the most speculative, and contentious, science known to man. Musicologists, on the other hand, have access to an enormous treasure trove of data, in the form of a great many field studies, but also a vast array of films and even more recordings, a catalog that grows larger every day and may some day include large samplings from literally every corner of the world.

Victor said...

Sorry, Jeremy, I forgot to answer the second part of your question, referring to whether or not there are specific musical markers, comparable to those used by archaeologists. The problem here is that Ethnomsicology has drifted quite far away from its original goal, the systematic comparative study of musical practices worldwide. So there is little or nothing of that sort that you're likely to encounter in your studies. I could write volumes on that topic, but for now all I'll say is that Alan Lomax, with my assitance, came up with a methodology designed to do just that: Cantometrics. In my opinion, it is a perfectly valid, highly systematic methodology for the heuristic (i.e., informal and provisional) comparative study of world music. What I am now doing is based both on Cantometrics findings and the knowledge I gained while doing Cantometric research -- plus a good deal of additional research since then. Cantometrics, while not exactly hard science, and despite some very real problems, is probably the best tool we have for the sort of comparative study that's going to be necessary if Ethnomusicology is to contribute to the current revolution prompted by the new genetic technologies.

You will of course hear many nasty things said about both Lomax and Cantometrics. I'll be addressing some of those issues in future posts, I imagine. For now all I'll say is that it's important to separate the Cantometric method from the more controversial aspects of the Cantometrics project generally, especially some of the more controversial claims made by Lomax that turned so many away from all aspects of his research.