September 6, 2017

On Ethnomusicality and Listening

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Cornell’s Department of Music is an institution so wonderfully varied in its scope that one must step back from it occasionally and ponder the vastness of the thing. Once, in the middle of a piano lesson during my freshman year, before I even considered myself a real member of the department, my instructor hilariously described to me this great divide. “On one half, it’s like 1750 all over again. ‘Alright everyone, let us put on our pantaloons, sit down and play our harpsichords!’ Meanwhile, on the other side of the rift, people are busy questioning whether ‘music’ even exists. ‘What is music? Is sound an object, or is it an entity? What is the difference between an object and an entity, anyway?’” I am fairly sure that I have experienced both sides of this aisle in only my first two years here. Last fall I took a music theory course where, at least once a week in section, I was expected to improvise a continuo line on harpsichord in the relevant 18th century style. In the spring, I took an elective dealing with music and nature and we had a class devoted to the aforementioned question of sound objects and entities (and afterwards I am still not really sure if music does indeed exist).

The world has led me to become rather wary of polar extremities of any such variety and so in my attempt to avoid them I have carved out my interests in a place somewhere near the middle of this curricular rift, particularly in the realm of ethnomusicology. Musicology might be broadly defined as the study of music and its place within a given culture, including its history, how it is used or appreciated and, of course, who is listening to it. The ethno portion of the word is a somewhat antiquated prefix used by Western scholars to imply the study of music cultures around the world, largely in non-Western regions. Research in ethnomusicology stems from problematic beginnings, when Western European anthropologists would travel to far-Eastern regions or areas in the Americas and describe various cultures as being inferior in intellectual and artistic substance to that of their own. Unfortunately, this colonizer-savior mentality persisted throughout the 19th century and existed well into the 20th century. It was only as recently as the 1980s that ethnomusicologists began to consider the bias and weight of their discipline as a whole. Research processes were altered and became more inclusive and relative, as did the language used in descriptions of different cultures.

In my broad range of undergraduate studies, ethnomusicology seems to be a fitting discipline to concentrate  some of my academic thought. I feel as though throughout my entire life, I have been listening to music that does not necessarily belong to my own personal culture. My mother was born and raised in the incredibly diverse Jamaica, Queens, where many of her friends were not white. Thus, she grew up listening to music by black artists in genres like soul, disco and eventually hip-hop music, as it emerged from New York in the later 1970s. Naturally, from the time I began to listen to music, this appreciation for such artists was instilled in me. When I was growing up and throughout high school, none of my white friends listened to music by black artists outside the realm of popular music (think of white boys at parties jumping around to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”). It was not until I started college and began to think about music as being a powerful societal tool did the problematic nature of this virtual segregation of taste become apparent. I have had so many conversations with white people who label whole sectors of music as being extreme or ridiculous and who judge black artists on completely different standards than they do white artists (yeah, Kanye is an eccentric person, but so was every white rock artist, ever). These unchecked opinions can not be considered anything less than microaggressions. If someone thinks Fear of a Black Planet or Straight Outta Compton is too extreme, how are they supposed to intelligently confront relevant political happenings, like police brutality or an oppressive prison-industrial complex or the Black Lives Matter movement?

Being a student of ethnomusicology often feels somewhat suspect, given the discipline’s troubled and outright racist beginnings. I sometimes worry if, for example, it is right for me to take a course on African diasporic music, led by a white professor, or whether white musicologists are unfairly thriving on the musical practices of other cultures. The truth is, white people can never presume to know what it is like to be a minority citizen in the United States and we can never claim to possess the genres that stemmed from diasporic cultures, such as jazz, rock or hip-hop. Yet, what we can not fully understand we can attempt to sympathize with and, in this light, it is our duty to listen to the music of marginalized voices. Ethnomusicology certainly fulfills this duty.

Finally, as I finished this column, Donald Trump announced the termination of the DACA policy. I wonder, what will be the resulting extent of the loss of diverse artistic voices in the United States, especially in the realm of music?

Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.