Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music, by Bruno Nettl

nettlHeartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music, by Bruno Nettl. University of Illinois Press (1995). ISBN-13: 978-0252064685.

To make sense of the title of Bruno Nettl's new book, Heartland Excursions (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), you have to move to the subtitle: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music. Here, one of America's most distinguished and far-ranging ethnomusicologists is turning his professional gaze on his own culture -- in fact, on the very cultural institution where he was trained and where he has made his career, the music school of the Midwestern, or Heartland, state university.

He acknowledges the intellectual oddness of the enterprise. He is at once an insider "who has lived in Heartland's music school culture for many years and knows its ins and outs as well as anyone" and a professional outside observer, "remembering my experiences as an outsider in other cultures and the questions I asked to help me get insight" (p.8). At times he poses as an ethnomusicologist from Mars, so as to emphasize his determination to notice exactly what cultural insiders take for granted. This pose would seem downright silly if we took it as an advertisement of the intellectual agility that he has come by as an ethnomusicologist, but I think it is better understood as a self- defensive device, an apology of sorts for the uncomfortable truths that he is uncovering about his own profession. They are uncomfortable because his professional colleagues -- university-level music teachers in the United States -- you and I -- are both the objects of his study and his principal intended readers.

While Nettl may be establishing the fairness of his method when he shows that he is asking the same questions of his own school of music that, as an outsider, he has asked of Blackfoot and Iranian and South Indian musical institutions, the strength of the book lies in insights only an insider could come to, in analysis driven by passions that Nettl would never allow himself to utter about anyone's culture but his own.

His predominant passion is to reveal the structures of power in the school of music, starting with the power of long-dead masters over the whole enterprise. Accordingly, his first chapter, "In the Service of the Masters," is a structural anthropological analysis of Western classical music as a religious cult, complete with its pantheon, myths, sacred notational system, and dualistic thought. While Nettl demonstrates through this analysis the artificiality of all value judgments within the musical culture, he appears by and large to be preparing the ground for his criticisms of other structures of that culture rather than criticizing the pantheon as such. In fact, the warmth of devotion he displays to the god Mozart throughout the book serves to establish his standing within the community to criticize at all.

In the chapter "A Society of Musicians" Nettl begins to analyze the class structures of the music school. He is concerned not just with the hierarchy of students, teachers, and administrators but also with the relative prestige of different musical specializations. In particular, with his anthropological eye for parallel structures within a culture, he sees the prestige of conducting ("the ultimate power trip") as distorting educational purposes throughout the music school, creating an authoritarian model of leadership for music-school administrators, and teaching students and mere professors in the school to accept that model. By the time we read that "the number of music-school administrators who move on into general university administration at the highest levels is remarkable" (p.78), we know that he is not speaking out of pride in his discipline.

Likewise, when we see that the next chapter is titled "A Place for All Musics?" we are not surprised to read in that chapter's first paragraph that "there are some ways in which the music school functions almost as an institution for the suppression of certain musics" (p. 82). Suppression is only part of the problem. While popular musics of American culture (especially rock and country) may be suppressed as "untouchable," as "pollutants," other musics outside the central repertory "may enter the hallowed space by way of a servants' entrance: classes in musicology. They may be accepted (performed) as long as they behave like the central repertory (performed in concerts with traditional structure) but remain separate (no sitar or electronic music in an orchestral and quartet concert). It is difficult to avoid a comparison with the colonialist who expects the colonized native to behave like himself (take up Christianity and give up having two wives) but at the same time to keep his distance (avoid intermarrying with the colonialist population)" (p.96). This is the voice of a scholar who has spent his career asking Western musicians to take notice of other musical cultures than their own and who has had some success in bringing music of other cultures into the Heartland music building, only to find that his colleagues have not taken advantage of this opportunity to reconsider their notions of what music is and what they themselves are up to as teachers and perpetuators of musical culture.

Nettl treats many more subjects in this short book, illuminating them all with incisive wit. There are many subjects that he doesn't cover: What groups within our society contribute the students and teachers to our music schools? What goes on in the classes, lessons, practice sessions, performances? Given his command of structural analysis, I would have liked especially to read his account of the spaces in the Heartland music building. For instance, what would be his metaphor for the space that encloses a music student for thousands of hours the practice room? For some of these subjects Nettl refers us to other studies, especially Henry Kingsbury's Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System and a collection in which Nettl himself had a hand, Community of Music: an Ethnographic Seminar in Champaign-Urbana. Also, I would like to see him go on writing this book.

In his conclusion Nettl observes that he has analyzed contradictions between the "values and structures" of the Heartland music school and the ideals of American society but hasn't recommended ways to deal with those contradictions. He gives two justifications: that "I would like to see change, although at this point I am not sure from what to what," and that he is following the "article of faith" of ethnomusiologists "that they should try their best to avoid disturbing the cultures they study" (p. 144). The first of these, I believe, deserves to be respected, and the second deserves to be challenged -- precisely because it is his own culture that he is studying and because he has already disturbed that music-school culture through his life's work, which now includes the analysis in Heartland Excursions . There are more than a few recommendations for change there, some implied, others fully articulated. As the issues raised in this book come more and more to be debated within the music-teaching profession, we are not going to stop needing whatever guidance Bruno Nettl can give us.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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