Friday, June 8, 2007

26. All Contexts Great and Small

For the great majority of ethnomusicologists today, context is fundamental. One is expected to study the manner in which various types of music function within a social context, narrowly defined: a particular tribe, or set of closely related tribal groups, a village, town, religious community, age group, etc. Such an approach conveniently squares with the prevailing research model, i.e., field work within a small community. What is not encouraged is any effort to broaden the context beyond the fieldwork model. The prevailing assumption would seem to be that one cannot, and in fact must not, compare a certain practice in one place with what might look or sound like something similar in another place because that would entail the removal of both practices from their "context." And since it is only in terms of the local context that one can assess the real meaning of any such practice, its true function in the community, then any but the most cautious and limited attempts at comparative study would, literally, be meaningless.

There is a long history behind this attitude, now hardened into a dogma, which I've touched on in earlier posts and won't return to here. Suffice it to say that in my opinion the decision to favor, and indeed enforce, such a narrow approach to the study of world music has been a mistake. I've already offered the testimony of a leading ethnomusicologist who is also a distinguished semiotician, Kofe Agawu. In the quoted segment Agawu focuses on "contemplative" listening as opposed to contextual "understanding," arguing that African music can be fully enjoyed via the "sonic trace" without any need to justify such involvement by poring over ethnomusicological field studies to become more fully aware of how it functions in its "social context." What Agawu is not saying is that we can enjoy African music simply as a disembodied formal structure, removed from any human context whatever. For him, music is a text, to be "read," as one reads a book, the implication being that the music itself can already "speak" to us with a meaning of its own, i.e., that it can indeed be comprehended "out of context," as in fact it routinely is, anytime anyone plays a recording.

Why is this the case? In my view, a recording of a piece of music already contains encoded within it a context of its own, a broader context, with a deeper meaning, than anything to be gleaned from an ethnographic study of how it functions in some specific community. It is this very deep well of meaning and emotion that, in fact, sets musical performance apart from any other mode of human behavior and ought to have given the comparative study of the musical practices of the world a place at the center, rather than the periphery of anthropology.

As an illustration of what's at stake, I would like to discuss a remarkable study by Jean-Jacques Nattiez, known primarily, like Agafu, as a semiologist: "Inuit Throat-Games and Siberian Throat Singing: A Comparative, Historical, and Semiological Approach" [in Ethnomusicology 43, 3, 1999]. Nattiez begins by presenting what looks like the sort of standard observation one might expect from a typical ethnomusicologist: "I wish to demonstrate how throat-games and throat-songs look alike but have different meanings in various cultures around the pole . . . " How often have I read, or heard stated some variant of that notion -- how "we can't" or "it is dangerous to" or "one should never" make connections between things that may look or sound alike but "have different meanings" in different cultural settings. Significantly, however, Nattiez is not an ethnomusicologist and his understanding of the problem is quite different from what might be expected.

He begins by presenting examples of "throat singing" from various "circumpolar" groups: certain Siberian tribes, the Ainu of the Sakhalin Peninsula and Hokkiado, and various Inuit groups of Alaska and Northern Canada. In his original oral presentation, he played recordings of various examples, but in the printed version he offers only photographs, descriptions and notated transcriptions of a style that from my perspective would be regarded as a variant of A1, or "Shouted Hocket." (For examples of throat singing roughly corresponding to the traditions studied by Nattiez, see section 22 below, where I've provided recorded clips from Kamchatka, the Inuit and Ainu.)

Nattiez notes that there is a significant difference in meaning between the various Inuit traditions, understood simply as games, and the traditions of the Siberians and Ainu, where throat singing has strong associations with shamanism. Understood "in context," one might thereby dismiss the very strong stylistic resemblances among all these different practices as of no importance since one functions merely as a game while the other has a very different function, as part of a shamanic ritual. Not easily discouraged, Nattiez brackets the issue of function to consider more generally applicable explanations for all the many similarities, along three categories: "universalist," "diffusionist" and "phylogenetic." Rejecting the first as unlikely and the second as improbable (because the vast geographic distances all but rule out direct influence), he embraces a phylogenetic interpretation quite close in fact to the hypothesis I have been outlining here: "Among the Inuit and the people of Asia, analogies of distribution between linguistic features . . ., archaeological artefacts . . . and genetic data . . . have been established. This strongly suggests that these connections are the result of a migration which occurred 4,000 to 5,000 years ago . . . " [411-412] He concludes that what is true for the linguistic, archaeological and genetic connections must probably be true for the musical practices, especially in the light of the long series of stylistic similarities he then enumerates. They must all stem from "common protoforms, as is the case for genes and languages..." [413]

Nattiez then goes on to consider "why these symbolic forms do not necessarily have these religious connotations today, particularly among the Canadian Inuit. The semiological distinction between the signifier and the signified in an historical perspective will help us to understand how a similar form (a similar signifier) gets a new meaning (a new signified) in a different culture... From this situation,we may draw broader conclusions of interest for general musicology and semiology. In sonorous symbolic forms, the form, the signifier, best resists transformations through time. However, the signified, the religious significations of the animal and nature imitations associated with these forms, are evanescent." [414]

The conclusion stated above is extraordinary, literally turning on its head the long cherished assumption that the only meanings to be considered are those signified in the context of a particular society, meanings which, for Nattiez, must be considered "evanescent." As his research clearly demonstrates, it is the musical signifier, what Agawu has called the "sonic trace," that has the power to persist through the ages, from one social context to the next, thus offering the more reliable index of human history and, potentially, the more convincing and satisfying insight into the meaning of music in the broadest and deepest sense.

It is necessary to make one more point with respect to all the above argumentation. While Nattiez explodes the hegemony of the functionalist and contextualist assumptions so dear to so many ethnomusicologists, he clearly could not have arrived at the conclusions he did without a very deep prior investigation into the functions and immediate contexts of throat-singing as manifested in all the different cultures studied. In fact, it was the testimony of an Inuit woman, who recalled some things her grandmother had said about the association of Inuit throat "games" with hunting magic, that provided him with an important clue to the possible origin of such games in shamanistic practice. [405]

Nattiez's paper by no means tells us that it is safe to ignore social context and function, especially since so much in it is based on exactly the kind of close ethnographic investigation that so many ethnomusicologists do so well. What it tells us is that this is not enough, that there is a larger context that must be considered as well. As I have often stated, both the generalist and specialist need each other. While the Cantometrics method is indeed limited to some of the many things one can learn by "reading" the "text" offered by the signifier of recorded musical performance, the Cantometrics project, like the project under discussion here (also based in Cantometric methodology), took a great many other things into consideration, including the unquestionably valuable contributions and insights of so many workers in the field. I sometimes like to joke (but it really isn't a joke) that, though I am often critical of a great many of my ethnomusicologist colleagues, I am probably the most avid reader, and appreciator, of their work -- from which I have learned and continue to learn a great deal.

1 comment:

Brodie said...

Love where you're going with Nattiez and what he says about the lifespan of signifier vs signified. Couldn't agree more about music rising above context and having a meaning of its own. Favorite post so far!