Continuing the Dialogue -- A Concerned Educator Deconstructs

In the May 1992 issue of the CMS Newsletter, articles by Dale Olsen and Robert Brown present two different views of the relationship between "ethnomusicology" and "world music," seen by one author as overlapping areas in the current curriculum and by the other as conflicting models of approach. Dale Olsen somewhat generously outlines the harmonious coexistence of two closely related fields, while Robert Brown sees ethnomusicology as an outdated, oppositional model, historically destined to be replaced by "world music."

With all due respect to the above-mentioned authors, who are both distinguished scholars, music educators deserve a more accurate view of ethnomusicology than that presented by Robert Brown, as well as a much more critical view of "world music" than that presented by Dale Olsen. Olsen's view that "ethnomusicology is a way to study about world music and world music pop"1 is accurate in that he makes an important separation between a scholarly discipline and its subject matter. But he does not question the idealistic assumptions of "world music." An exploration of these assumptions leads directly to a discussion of the place of mysticism in the academy.

To begin, we should look at the term itself, which takes advantage of a linguistic peculiarity. There is a fundamental presumption of unity in "world music" as opposed to the plural form, "musics," which is rarely seen in print. This disarmingly subtle innovation, inherited through conversations with Mantle Hood, has led to some humorous encounters with copy editors. As silly as it might seem, our reluctance to accept the plural form of "music" reflects a degree of ethno-centrism that is not applied to other forms of communication. For example, if we use the singular in reverse, has anyone ever heard of a "world language" or "world religion" curriculum? The hegemonic implications should be obvious.

Aside from labels, there is very little to separate the activities of someone practicing "ethnomusicology" from someone teaching "world music." The main difference is the relative degree of importance attached to performance studies. Since the establishment of the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA in the 1950s, most contemporary programs in ethnomusicology have aspired to maintain the balance between performance studies and scholarly discourse.2 Indeed, in most academic contexts, the composers, performers, and presenters of any kind of music -- all music educators -- are to some extent musicologists, because we use speech to mediate and enhance the experience, performance, and cultivation of music.

Ethnomusicology is not just a simple hybrid formed of anthropology and musicology. From the very beginning, it has encompassed a whole range of methodologies and perspec tives appropriate to the diversity of its subject matter,3 and it has always been global in scope. Although the primary focus remains music, contemporary ethnomusicologists continue to incorporate many kinds of interdisciplinary insights, concepts, and ideas. These are derived not only from all of the social sciences, but also from the other arts, from linguistics, from the natural sciences, and from semiotics. Gilbert Chase's translation of ethnomusicology as "cultural musicology" may be too restrictive in this sense; "interdisciplinary musicology" might be a better term.

In many ways, ethnomusicology stands as a vital, holistic alternative to more perfunctory attempts to expand the music curriculum geographically without a corresponding expansion of pedagogical approach. The field is in a constant state of dialogue and self examination. Challenges of inter-subjectivity and ethics alluded to in Robert Brown's article do not herald the invalidity of academic research in the humanities; they challenge and en courage us to pursue a more rigorous, interactive objectivity that aspires to transcend the "Us and Them" syndrome. The onerous "colonialist" heritage in the humanities is located in the refusal to recognize intersubjectivity, not in the existence of the fields themselves.

While the "musical ecology" advocated by Robert Brown is a most worthy ideal, there is an inherent contradiction between this concept and his philosophical capitulation to the forces of global consumerism. Musical forms and languages are valuable in themselves as structural entities, and this study is an appropriate part of scholarship. Of equal and possibly greater importance however, is the communicative significance of these forms as they relate to people's values, to various world-views, and to the myriad extensions and refinements of biobasic human perception. In my own writing, I have voiced a similar call for an "ecology of consciousness,"4 but expressed as a concept that dialectically opposes the economic monolith that appears to be effacing our differences.

It must be pointed out that in an economic context, Bartok, Berg, and Boulez are almost as threatened as the most remote ritual ceremonial traditions; the academy must continue to play a role in pointing out the cultural options. This is not to defend the "ivory tower" denial of vernacular culture; popular media phenomena deserve our attention as much as any other topics. When studied by persons who are relatively disengaged from the economic agenda of the entertainment industry, popular musics are often seen in a more objective light. Anne Dhu McLucas has demonstrated the vitality of popular music as a stimulant of dynamic interaction in the college classroom.5 In a political context, the "New World Order" described by Robert Brown would be read quite differently outside the United States. A frankly mystical view of history that provides ready-made answers to the question "Where are we headed?" would be highly suspect in many international circles, as would his claim that religion is being supplanted by humanism on a global scale. On the contrary, many scholars now recognize that individuals and groups can be moving culturally in two directions (toward both autonomy and acculturation) at the same time.6

Even within America, Brown is treading on politically sensitive ground when he suggests that the struggle for minority rights is a "transitional" stage on the path to global culture.7 The old "American melting pot" theory has now resurfaced to threaten the whole world! It is ironically appropriate that he cites E.T. Hall's book Beyond Culture in promoting the "world music" model, as if the phrase "beyond culture" by itself could lead us around one of the deepest, most difficult and complex challenges in human life! Actually the whole purpose of Hall's work is to map the tips of an iceberg-sized problem: to identify the mag nitude of its proportions, not to dismiss it as irrelevant or imagine that we have already transcended it. This problem is the irrational power, subliminal pervasiveness, and tenacity of unconscious culture. To quote from the end of Hall's book: "In America ... the groups have lived together, in many instances for generations. They no longer have the goodwill (so fleetingly and quickly dispelled) that one finds when travelling. Instead, there is a deep emotional involvement of the type involved in the family where there is a generation gap. Again, the only thing that explains the feelings and behavior that one observes is that there is a significant identification factor on all sides."8

Music can accomplish amazing things, and we are just starting to re@e its multifaceted potential. But in order for us really to begin to transcend or go "beyond" culture, we must first become much more profoundly aware of culture, and this process may take centuries. According to Hall, one of the only ways of doing this is through a rigorous analysis that seeks causes for the friction that unexpectedly results from the collision of different unconscious systems.9

When presenting a musical tradition in a new and sometimes very different context, it is naive to assume that no little or no mediation is needed. While musicology without performance studies has sometimes been balanced too heavily on the side of "objectivity," performance studies without reference to context are unbalanced on the side of subjectivity. It becomes tempting to confuse the artistic stimulation of a freshly-experienced musical tradition with the transcendence of deep cultural differences. These pervasive differences, many of which are unconscious and subliminal, remain present, both as profound barriers to human communication and as hints of unexplored human potential.

"World music" may be a convenient marketing label for CD and cassette sales promotion, but it should not be mistaken for an academic field. Within musicology, the dialogue is only beginning!


(1) Dale Olsen, "World Music and Ethnomusicology -- Understanding the Differences," CMS Newsletter, May 1992, 2.

(2) Charles Seeger, "Foreword" to Mantle Hood The Ethnomusicologist, (New York, 1971), vii.

(3) Mantle Hood The Ethnomusicologist, 3-4.

(4) John Myers Way of the Pipa, (Kent, Ohio, 1990), 135.

(5) This was the topic for a session led by Anne Dhu McLucas during the 1992 CMS/NEH Summer Institute "Rethinking American Music: New Issues in Cultural Diversity," Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA.

(6) Mark Slobin "Micromusics of the West: A Comparative Approach," Ethnomusicology, (1992), 1-88.

(7) Robert Brown "World Music-Past, Present, and Future," CMS Newsletter, May 1992, 4.

(8) E. T. Hall Beyond Culture, (Garden City, New York, 1976) 240.

(9) Ibid., 213-22.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

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