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SOME QUESTIONS THAT CONCERN ETHNOMUSICOLOGISTS

Author:                   City : New-York   Country : USA
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When Dr. Bagirova asked me to discuss current methods and approaches in Western ethnomusicology, I thought it might be good to start with some remarks on ways in which the research procedures of ethnomusicologists in Europe and North America have improved in the 35 years since I began my fieldwork in Iran. I hope we have learned to formulate better questions and to prepare ourselves to recognize answers that are not those we may have expected to hear. Unexpected answers to some of our questions can suggest ways in which we might improve the questions.

In the early 1970s a few scholars published studies of discourse about music in which they compared the terms used in one region for genres, roles of performers, or the components of a performance or of an instrument, with the terms used in other regions. The aim of such studies was analysis of regional variation as a means of recognizing systematic distinctions. We cannot understand the meaning of any term without knowing the alternatives the terms that might have been used in its place. The meaning of a term is determined by all the respects in which it differs from these alternatives. How is it described or felt, in relation to what else?

In 1972 the Polish musicologist Jan Stęszewski published a richly detailed account of the names given to genres of song and instrumental music in several regions of Poland. What occasions and circumstances for performance and what ways of singing and playing have people in one region needed or wished to distinguish from what other occasions, circumstances, and styles? Research projects that provide accurate answers to this question increase our knowledge of how people theorize about music.

The great book on Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey that Laurence Picken published in 1975 is remarkable for many reasons, not least the close attention that Picken gave to the terms used by makers and players of instruments. Readers of Pickens book can ask many questions about the sets of terms he gathered in many regions of Turkey. The larger point is that all such sets of terms are products of theorizing.

Perhaps the single most influential study that helped ethnomusicologists arrive at an appropriately broad conception of music theory was the pair of articles published in 1978 and 1979 by Hugo Zemp on the terminology and theory of the Areare people in Melanesia. Zemp spent a lot of time watching as panpipes were made and as ensembles rehearsed compositions. These observations of common activities enabled him to learn the extensive terminology for sounds, intervals, segments of compositions, and the like. Probably there is no language in which people do not make systematic distinctions involving sound and performance. That does not mean, of course, that all sets of distinctions are systematic to the same extent, or in the same manner. Learning which specific aspects of sounds and performances are codified or systematized more rigorously than others is one of the central concerns of ethnomusicology.

It is a concern that extends far beyond the study of terminology. The moves that people make as they sing, play instruments, or dance would not be meaningful if they did not refer to sets of distinctions that are to some extent systematic. Most musicians control a repertoire of moves that includes some which can be identified with terms, and many others for which there are no names1.

Two questions are especially important in studying any repertoire of moves. (1) What sequences of moves are possible, given the limitations not only of specific instruments but of individual performers habits and skills? (2) What sequences of moves are appropriate in response to cues of various kinds? In fieldwork, ethnomusicologists often obtain multiple and conflicting answers to both questions. We should not expect everyone to agree on what is possible and what is appropriate. The disagreements we encounter help us to become aware of alternatives which performers have rejected for one reason or another.

Let me give three short examples. In several of the Arabic treatises on the lawfulness, or not, of listening to music, the frame drum is one of the few instruments permitted but only if it is without jingles (see Shiloah 1979). The presence or absence of jingles is the feature that determines whether the instrument is permitted or allowed. In northeastern Iran, one member of the Xaksar order of dervishes once told me that men in his circle snapped their fingers as they sang in order to sustain a regular beat without having recourse to the frame drum. Laurence Picken reports hearing a similar comment in Turkey. Without these comments, neither Picken nor I is likely to have perceived one meaning of finger-snapping in specific environments to be avoidance of the frame drum. Perhaps in some circumstances a set of three options is relevant: one may play a frame drum with jingles, or avoid that by playing one without jingles, or avoid even that by snapping ones fingers.


1 In his Great Book on Music, al-Farabi (c. 339/950) made the same point about the distinctive qualities (fusul) of sound that result from different moves (Farabi 1967: 1069; trans. dErlanger 1930: 57). Some qualities have not received names (asmā); some have their own proper names; some are named on the basis of resemblances (aşbā) to things perceptible through senses (mahsusat) other than hearing, such as vision and touch; and some have names that imitate them (tuhâkihā). Onamatopoeic words in the Kitabi D˙d˙ Qorqud are good examples of the latter category e.g., , , kt kt, and at at.


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