Thursday, June 7, 2007

25. Music, Text, and Context

An amost obsessive catechism for ethnomusicologists over the last 30 years or so has been the phrase "Music cannot be taken out of context." And by "context" is invariably meant not only the specific social context in which music is performed, but above all the way in which music functions in that context. So the typical mode of research for ethnomusicologists has been to go out into the field to do what amounts to an ethnographic study. Recordings are made to be sure, but the primary goal is to work as a participant observer in order to get under the skin of the phenomenon, by talking with and interviewing performers and above all, learning to become a performer oneself. Once an insider's view of a culture is achieved, then the true function of its music in context and the true role of its performers in context can be understood -- and then communicated via the writing of field reports, academic papers, books, etc. but also via teaching, not only in the classroom, but also by training students in the musical traditions one has learned, directing an ensemble made up of traditional instruments from the culture in question, inviting traditional master performers to come to campus to lecture, give lessons, perform, etc. In other words by, you guessed it: taking the music 0ut of context. As this is only the first of many such contradictions, I'll let it pass for now without comment.

So where were we? The music of some specific society has been studied closely, in situ, its various functions have been determined and the ethnomusicologist returns, as an expert in how certain specific types of music function in one particular "native" context, to pass her or his knowledge on to others. All well and good. In fact highly commendable. But to what end? Are such activities so important that they can be justified as ends in themselves? Ethnomusicology for the sake of Ethnomusicology, as in "Art for Art's sake"? If ethnomusicology is to be regarded as a form of scholarship or perhaps even a science, then clearly the study of one particular body of musical practices in one particular place can be justified only if that study can be put to use as part of some larger project, with broader goals. In other words, any ethnomusicological study, to justify itself, must at some point be taken, you guessed it, out of context so it can be compared with other studies, with the goal of comprehending different types of musical practice in a variety of different contexts.

Or, in the words of philosopher Paul Ricoeur, "An essential characteristic of a literary work, and of a work of art in general, is that it transcends its own psychosociological conditions of production and thereby opens itself to an unlimited series of readings themselves situated in different sociocultural conditions. In short the text must be able to . . . "decontextualize" itself in such a way that it can be "recontextualized" in a new situation -- as accomplished precisely in the act of reading."

Though Ricoeur refers to "the text" and "the act of reading" only in passing here, the notions of text, textuality and reading are of central importance in his thinking, and by no means to be understood as strictly literary. That music can also be regarded as "text" in this sense has been argued by ethnomusicologist/ semiotician Kofi Agawu in an essay entitled, significantly enough, "African Music As Text." I want to quote extensively from this important document:

Traditional African music is not normally described as contemplative art (see Euba, "The Potential of African Traditional Music"). It is thought rather to be functional. Functional music drawn from ritual, work, or play is externally motivated. Thus funeral dirges sung by mourners, boat-rowing songs sung by fishermen, lullabies performed by mothers, and songs of insult traded by feuding clans: these utilitarian musics are said to be incompletely understood whenever analysis ignores the social or "extra-musical" context. This music is then contrasted with elite or art music, whose affinities with European classical music are for the most part unmediated. Such contemplative music is not tied to an external function. Although it is in principle consumed in a social setting, it demands nothing of its hearers save contemplation, meditation, an active self-forgetting. According to this distinction, then, analysis of traditional music--which is sometimes generalized to encompass all African music--must always take into account the particular activity to which the music is attached, whereas analysis of European music, unburdened of attachment to external function, can concentrate on the music itself, its inner workings, the life of its tones.
The point that African music can be legitimately listened to still needs to be made in view of long-standing views linking music and dance. Gerhard Kubik, for example, has argued that African music constitutes a "motional system" (9-46). The implication is that physical negotiation of various musical patterns is as important as the sonic trace itself. The resulting emphasis on context easily leads to a denial that listening to African music without extramusical props can be a rewarding or even legitimate activity. In explaining why "it is a mistake `to listen' to African music," John Chernoff draws attention to a number of supplementary texts that prop up the music sound (75). Putting aside the one sidedness of the argument (isn't European music as much a "motional system" as any other? isn't it similarly rooted in the extramusical?), we might point out that at no point is traditional music turned over to the deaf; at no point do its critics abandon aural engagement. The functional attribute, then, is restrictive, and it is part of my purpose here to urge its elimination...[in Research in African Literatures, 6/22/2001.]

Agawu’s basic argument is that African musics can legitimately be treated as “texts, texts that demand (and deserve) to be contemplated.” That is, just as we profitably read a book, so may we profitably listen to a recording of African (or, by implication, any) music, because the “sonic trace” itself already represents so much of importance. I emphasize the word “represents” because Agawu, as a semiotician, is sensitive to the processes in and through which signifieds can contain so much more than what is immediately apparent in their signifiers.

I'm editing a bit here, since I just now realized that the last part of the above sentence might be better stated thus: the processes in and through which signifiers can contain so much more than what is immediately apparent in their signifieds.

(to be continued)


Philip Dorrell said...

Victor, this is more of a comment on your whole blog rather than the current entry, but I wonder if you have seen my website which treats some of the same questions that you are thinking about.

Victor said...

Philip, I went to your website and took a look at parts of your book. You are an intriguing and obviously very intelligent person who, like myself, has many diverse interests. I know it sounds like a copout, but I'm not qualified to provide much in the way of a meaningful response to your book, as it concerns psychological and cognitive issues I've never looked into very deeply, not to mention the math, which is over my head. One thing that I did pick up on was your very interesting treatment of interval relationships as vectors, or what I'd call "vector fields." I've written a bit along such lines myself, in an essay that might interest you, "A Field Theory of Music Semiosis," which can be found here:

It seems as though are a great many people now doing research on the cognitive aspect of music, a field that does seem very promising. My problem with just about all this research, including yours, is that it tends to operate in the abstract, in terms of pure tonal relationships on the one hand, and synapses, neurons and genes on the other, with little or no attention paid to the way music is actually performed by real people in the world of today. You could play Beethoven's Ninth on one of those older computer synthesizers that just played the notes without nuances -- but presented all the tonal relationships -- and I can assure you no one would want listen to it for more than a minute or so. This tells me there is a lot more to music than tonal relationships, no matter how fascinating the mathematics behind them might be.

Which is not to say that the investigation of such relationships isn't important. It certainly is, and I think you may well have contributed something significant in that realm. But I don't see that line of research solving the most basic riddles of "what music is" and what it means.

I may have completely misunderstood you as I've only skimmed your book, but for what it's worth, that's may take on it at this point.

I hope you'll continue to read here and contribute. Thanks.