Monday, May 14, 2007

3. The neglect of music by anthropologists

I find it both puzzling and frustrating, given what is known about the various families of traditional music worldwide, to read, in the field of anthropology, book after book, report after report, where theories about the history of languages, and their grouping into various families, are continually being referenced, especially in the literature on the origins and early migrations of "modern" humans, and yet what is known about the musical picture is all but ignored. In a sense this is a "good thing" for me, since I now find myself apparently without any competition at all, from ethnomusicologists or anyone else. But it's a huge problem for me as well, because the notion that the study of current or recent musical practices among traditional societies cannot be applied to the distant past is so ingrained into the thinking of so many.

Even in a book explicitly devoted to speculations about the nature and origins of humankind's earliest music, The Singing Neanderthals, archaeologist Steven Mithin makes a point of ignoring such practices (thus conveniently relieving himself of the need to do much of any reading in the ethnomusicological literature) on precisely those grounds. He bolsters this position by arguing that music changes at a much more rapid rate than language: "The speed at which music can evolve is readily apparent from the development since the early 1970s of rap, part of a more general subculture of hip hop, which includes break-dancing, 'cutting and scratching' records and graffiti." (p,. 21). This monumentally naive and amateurish observation, offered as evidence, would probably, and very sadly, be seconded by many professional ethnomusicologists, who now seem so obsessed with the notion of change that they have forgotten what the word "tradition" means.

First of all, it makes no sense to lump the practices of indigenous tribal peoples with current developments in Western society, where information can be transmitted instantaneously around the world to millions if not billions of people at a time. Second, it completely ignores all the many aspects of rap and hip-hop culture that can be seen as perpetuating very fundamental aspects of subsaharan African culture. It's even been argued that such practices constitute a revival of African traditions, as a reaction to the more Europeanized types of music that constitute the pop mainstream. As I argue in my essay, we have very good reason to believe that music, or at least certain musical traditions, are far more conservative than just about any other aspect of culture, certainly more than language. One of many reasons why it's important for anthropologists to start paying attention.

4 comments:

joel said...

At least Mithven is trying to bring music to the table.
Part of the problem seems to be that most/many liguists seem inclined to pretend music doesn't exist, or that it has nothing to do with them. Why is that, what is it about music that keeps them away?
The musical links between hiphop and African traditional music sounds like it would be a very interesting area to cover.

Victor said...

Welcome Joel. Thanks for posting here. You're my first visitor to do so.

Yes, Mithen does deserve credit for paying attention to the role of music in prehistory. Also, IMO, he has some very interesting things to say about the relation between the origins of music and the origins of language.

I think that what keeps most archaeologists, linguists, etc., away from music is the conviction that somehow music is different because it exists only in the "here and now," whereas ancient or archaic fossils, inscriptions, cave art, etc. are considered bonafide remnants from the past. To me there is little real difference, since in fact all exist only in the present.

As I see it, whatever we have to work with, whether fossilized, inscribed in stone, or recorded on a CD we bought yesterday, is always going to have 1. an existence for us in the present, as something we can now touch, examine, see, or hear; 2. a history, either as an object or the representative of a tradition.

I don't really see the distinction, therefore, between an object identified as a fossil, which may or may not date back to antiquity and a musical performance identified as part of a cultural tradition, which may or may not date back to antiquity. In both cases we use various methodologies to compare what we have in hand, or on record, with other instances of a similar kind that we have already learned something about. And we make inferences based on that, and other evidence, to develop theories about how far back in time either the fossil or the tradition might go. I'll probably have more to say on this in future posts, as it goes to the heart of my approach to historical research in music.

I'm glad to see that you are intrigued by the very interesting relation between hip hop and certain African cultural traditions. Of course there is, by now, a huge literature on hip hop, and this point has been made, as I recall, in at least one book I've read, an excellent one -- but sorry I can't recall the title or author. Last summer I attended a hip hop dance competition in New York City and was amazed at the similarities between some of the moves these teenagers were making and my impressions of certain types of African dance. I'm not an expert on dance, far from it, but the similarities did seem quite striking.

Evan said...

I'm a linguist/cognitive scientist who is also interested in music. I can't yet say why music is ignored in other disciplines, other than it is both a) not in their discipline (few have the skills to do an in-depth analysis of both music and language) and b) a hard problem. This is something I hope to change in the course of my studies, mainly in regard to how each develops in the mind (but I'm also interested in their place in society).

Keep up the good work!

Victor said...

Nice hearing from you, Evan. I'm really pleased to see someone with your background reading here. It's encouraging that cognitive scientists are taking an interest in the meaning and origins of music.

I think one of the main reasons specialists in fields like linguistics, anthropology and, yes, cognitive science as well, pay so little attention to the literature on world music is that they have been actively discouraged from doing so by the ethnomusicologists themselves, thanks to what seems a disastrous lowering of ambition and scope in this field over the last 30 years or so.

I find it significant that a book such as "The Origins of Music," which raises some extremely interesting issues and considers some very promising evidence was written largely by biologists and cognitive scientists, with only marginal contributions by the two ethnomusicologists participating. The two I'm referring to, Simha Arom and Bruno Nettl are major figures in ethnomsuciology whose combined knowledge and insights are vast and could have contributed a great deal. But they seem to have convinced themselves (or possibly been browbeaten by some of their peers) that what they are doing could not possibly be related to the topic at hand. I strongly disagree -- and hope that I'll be able, some day, to change their minds.

Regardless, I'm really pleased to see you here and hope you'll continue to participate with comments, questions and ideas.