Western Music and the Ethnomusicologist's Gaze: Theory, Praxis, and Performance Viewed by a Filipino-American with Lutheran Leanings

1994 Robert M. Trotter Lecture

We are at an important historical moment, in which music scholarship is undergoing redefinition and reevaluation. There are major changes in the field:

First, university resources are being reduced while greater demands are being made upon them.

Second, there are fewer and fewer college and university positions for the narrow specialist and fewer positions overall. We may be producing graduates without realistic chances for employment. Are we tenured oldsters retiring fast enough to accommodate the young scholars we are launching down the pipeline?

Third, and finally, the notion of scholarly objectivity in which musical truth is dispensed as if by a

single voice -- usually a white, male, East-Coast, Germanictinged one -- is no longer the reality of historical musicology or of ethnomusicology. Now the voices are multiple, and they are demanding parity. Colleagues who identify themselves as African-American, feminist, or gay confront the polite fiction of a scholarly community without ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference. Surveying this, an emeritus colleague from a large Midwestern university observed sadly, "Our field is in disarray." What he sees as disarray, I see as the moment for critical self- examination, optimizing resources, and reevaluating our relevance to a society that supports and tolerates our activity.

Given the multiplicity of voices, the messenger requires as much scrutiny as the message -- therefore, the unusual title of this address. It reveals something about the speaker as well as the topic. Locating the researcher vis-a-vis the research has resonance with the Polynesian custom of reciting one's genealogy until the speaker and the listener encounter an ancestor in common. That ancestor in common provides the perspective from which the listener relates to the messenger and evaluates the message.

Now, to the messenger, "a Filipino-American with Lutheran Leanings." The Western-art elitist tradition is part of my musical heritage, along with the music and dance traditions of the Philippines. When I was growing up in San Jose, California, our family regularly attended the San Francisco Symphony when it was still at the Opera House. My interest and activity in Western music was major and, in some sense, occupied the "best years of my life." So I was somewhat taken aback at the end of my college career when my entitlement to this music -- my music, I thought -- was questioned by a well-meaning socialite who re marked, "It's wonderful that you have done so well in piano, organ, 'cello, and lieder, but what about the music of your own culture?" Western music ispart of my culture; it is also my entitlement to exercise this present critique.

The Filipino part is also central. I was born in 1941. Very soon, I was aware of what being Filipino meant; it meant that I was not Japanese. During the racist hysteria of the War years, Chinese and Filipino children had to be clearly identified. The identity as Filipino was further reenforced by my parents' church activities; they gave talks about Protestant missionary activity in the Philippines. Then my brother and I dazzled the audience with Filipino folk dances and songs -- my performance debut at age six. The ac curacy of that identity was shaken when, as a young adult, I went to the Philippines for the first time. I did not find the Philippines of my parents' memory or the one enacted in our songs and dances. Thus, the Filipino aspect of my identity is complementary to and is clearly grounded in the American part.

The "Lutheran leanings" are historically musical. My studies in piano and organ led me to discover the majesty and grandeur of Buxtehude and Bach, and additionally to discover the employment possibilities as church organist in and out of the Missouri Synod. The Lutheran leanings were reenforced by my stint as an exchange student in a German high school, and they were challenged by two years at the University of Cologne, the heart of Rhineland Catholicism.

The formulation "the ethnomusicologist's gaze" references feminist and gender literature. It is inspired by Laura Mulvey's discussion of the "male gaze." Mulvey's position as a woman writing about the enfranchised Gender-Other is similar to mine as an ethnomusicologist and a person of color examining the enfranchised Musical-Other.

Ethnomusicology has developed a number of paradigms for examining other musical cultures. What happens when we apply one to Western classical music in America? I present a paradigm of ten features:

(1) In concerts, the contemporary performance canon consists of discrete, attributed compositions. None of their composers flourished in America, and most of them lived over a century ago. Thus, American performance maintains a connection to an idealized, mythic, Western-European past.

(2) As such, it functions as a liminal culture, preserving at the margins a culture centered elsewhere, a typical immigrant strategy.

(3) Contemporary creation, i.e., composition, exists independent of the concert industry. Major outlets for contemporary composition include music for dance and film.

(4) Music of the academy historically was patronized and supported by individuals of privilege and power. In America, the power is collectively held and defined by politics and economics. Composers are relatively unprotected; when they are, it is by the university as institution and by tenure as tradition.

(5) The performance and transmission of the tradition is bisensory, dependent upon both sight and sound. In the academy, the centrality of music notation sometimes eclipses music as sound organization. Often, the composition thesis is judged from its score rather than its sound manifestation.

(6) The performance and transmission of the tradition is bimodal. It depends upon both musical and semantic communication. In the academy, to mangle Charles Seeger, we "language more about music" than we "music about music."

(7) The performance and transmission of music inspired by religious belief can be performed, appreciated, and understood independent of that belief.

(8) The tradition is a major platform for social mobility, notably for ethnic minorities. The mobility opportunes both the producer -- Kathleen Battle and Paul Chihara come to mind -- and the consumer. This society accords the classical performer a relatively high status, which contrasts with other societies that regard the musician as chattel or hired help.

(9) The music tradition understands itself through a priori musical technical rules, e.g., theory. Theory continues to inform composition and performance. American music theory often draws upon the nomenclature and concepts of another continent and another historical era.

(10) The musical experience is mediated rather than direct. In some cases, the mediated music replaces the direct performance experience, including classical radio broadcasts, CD, and concert video. The mediated performance is sometimes preferred to the live one.

This profile, although unfamiliar, may explicate official culture and the American musical establishment. Also, it may explain why elitist music is at crisis in the consumer sector and under reexamination in the academy. It provides a basis for comparison. In that regard, I recapitulate four of my ten points about Western classical music:

(1) The canon. In jazz the canon exists on at least three levels: a discrete composition, a musical form, and a musical style. Thus, the jazz musician must know "How High the Moon," a composition; montuno, a musical form; and hard funk, a musical style.

(2) Preservation of another's music. A significant part of Japan's artistic community is engaged in preservation. The December Beethoven madness, the Haydn Society of Japan, and the number of world- class concert artists of Japanese nationality are evidence. However, the present is not a unique time -- Japan's history as preserver of "the Other" includes its relationship with Korea, Manchuria, Han China, and India.

(3) Contemporary creation. In Indian classical music, creation is predominantly performance improvisation rather than new composition.

(4) Patronage. The Indian classical tradition has a similar history of patronage, including the contemporary governmental one. It is one of the traditions that has "migrated" to the United States and is maintained at a high artistic level, particularly on the West Coast.

Ethnomusicology began as an expansion of Musikwissenschaft, the generalized study of musical phenomena that originally included acoustics and tuning systems. In post-Curt Sachs America, it assumed a confrontational stance against the hegemony of Western music and historical musicology.

The ethnomusicological gaze has merit as a pedagogical strategy for the contemporary student. In an increasing number of cases, the student knocking on the door of the academy comes with a musical enculturation that has little to do with the canon we teach. Student familiarity with musical theater is a case in point. Sondheim and Webber enjoy the support and consumership of American's economic elite reminiscent of that accorded Mozart and Puccini when they were alive. They are purveyors of a tonal music that is being demanded by the (so-called conservative) concert-going public. From an ethnomusicological view, if it looks like art music, it behaves like art music, and it sounds like art music, . . .

Certainly, Snoop Doggy Dogg is known by a broad demographic section of the youth population. The logogenic bias of hiphop has estheticized the English semantic utterance. Its meaning occurs in a socially-charged, specifically- ontextualized environment, as his latest effort, "Murder is the Case," shows. Does Snoop impact the understanding of recitativo secco?

As a teacher of the Western music tradition in multicultural Hawai'i and most recently in culturally-polarized Los Angeles, I find the approaches of ethnomusicology critical. For example, what are the concert rituals, and why are they important? How did the streams of ethnicity and religion converge with regard to Mendelssohn, in World War 11 Germany?

To American ethnomusicologists, I point out that our field has assumed an antihegemonic stance vis-a-vis Western music. We have constructed an international database of "the Other" that excludes the European art tradition. Unfortunately, among some of our colleagues, it is not only exclusion but ignorance of the classical tradition that i s the case. If ethnomusicology is to continue its claim that it studies all music, or, as Mantle Hood so aptly put it, "music wherever, whenever," then the academy comes under our gaze.

In the future I see the boundaries between musicology and ethnomusicology diminishing. Re search will be grouped according to similarities in methodologies. For instance, historical questions impact the Italian madrigal, Japanese ko-uta, Indian ghazal, and Persian dastgah. Cross-cultural studies include Russian Late Romanticism as co-opted by Maoist China's official culture, the transformations of American Black in soca and world beat, and aspects of Orientalism among nineteenth-century Italian composers and among twentieth-century Jewish-American ones. In the future, the term ethnomusicologist (like the term ethnocentrism) will denote scholars whose only interest is the music of their own culture.

As an ethnomusicologist (as the term is presently defined), I have found that it is the principles of music in society and the rules of music as sound that enrich and equip our students. Also, I have come to the conclusion that I don't teach music, I teach students, and music is the avenue through which I do this.

Our field of music study may very well be in disarray. But it is from the ashes of disarray that the phoenix arises. In our advocacy of western music, we are at a crossroads and are confronted by challenges and opportunities. We of the American musical establishment can emulate the phoenix -- or the dinosaur.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 07/05/2014

Ricardo D. Trimillos

Ricardo D. Trimillos is professor emeritus in ethnomusicology and Asian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, specializing in the music of Island Southeast Asia, Hawai’i, and Japan. His PhD is from UCLA. Recent titles include "Agency and Voice: the Philippines at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival [music and cultural rights]" (2008), "Music, Identity and Modes of Circulation...Transnationalization of Musics in/of Asia" (2009) and "Nusantara/Nanyang/Southeast Asia; Public Enactments of Religious Belief" (in press). He is currently editor for the journal Asian Music and has been consultant for the University of Malaysia-Sabah and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. He is past Chair of the CMS International Initiatives Committee (1998-2008) and the first CMS Robert Trotter Lecture speaker (1995).

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