About two months ago I attended the Society for Ethnomusicology’s annual conference. We met this year in New Orleans, which itself is worthy of a blog post. Had it not been such a busy semester I would have been writing about it as it went. Be that as it may, I had a conversation with a friend and senior colleague in the hopes of getting some advice on focusing my post-dissertation work towards my first monograph. I’ve been finding myself struggling with what I’ve always privately called my “big idea syndrome” – something that students go through where it’s really easy to talk in generalities about a research project but there’s a scary lack of specifics. With my students this is generally because they think themselves in circles – they have not learned how to discipline themselves to step back and see the place where a conversation about a topic needs to begin. In their defense I have to say that there is no single place where conversations begin. I may, one of these days, post about the workshops I conduct with all my undergraduate students to teach them how to find that place with any given research topic but that’s a conversation for another post.
As for me, I’ve had enough experience to know when I’m running in circles and that it’s time to call in the cavalry; generally friends who know me well enough to recognize when I’m spinning around like a top and that there’s a there there, but they are people who are enough outside my research world that they make me find that starting place. My senior colleague friend did this for me two months ago with the suggestion that I stop running in circles and write a manifesto. That is, what is my own research agenda? Why do I do this research? What do I get out of this?
My friend had a sensible point – without this to use as my starting point, it becomes a case of constantly reinventing the conversation of who I am and why I’m talking to what many of my colleagues think are the wrong people. I talk to musicians and other performers, not producers. I’m interested in the recording engineers and remixers, not the fans or audience members. I’m not interested in the fan community that form around a musician or genre, I’m interested in the performer and his/her world. The minutae that make up performance culture, not the culture around music objects.
I have another friend with whom I’ve formed something of a writing pact. I’m labeling it this way because it sounds a little silly to call two people a writing group, but she and I are in a way anchoring each other to support ourselves and each other to get the projects we value done. I have to give her credit for helping me produce the manifesto statement here – without our conversation this afternoon I’m not sure it would have come out so well. A caveat: I’m expecting to refine this statement over the next months since interviews are continuing and I have the first of what I hope will be a series of conference papers in 2013 in development.
Anyhow, here goes. I’ve kept it fairly short and sweet though I think there’s a lot of unpacking to do in the second paragraph, which I try to do afterwards. Pardon that this feels like fairly weighty stuff to me, which always make me a little uncomfortable. The capitalizations are my attempt, for better or worse, to lighten that up.
Meryl’s Manifesto on the Culture of Music and Performance Production
(Note: Any word that is unusually capitalized in this statement should be read with a certain amount of irony. I don’t actually take myself very seriously but I take conventions and “what everyone says” even less so.) My whole agenda in researching the place of working musicians in the culture of music performance is that the voice of musicians, particularly in Western musical contexts gets lost in the statistics. Ethnomusicologists are always bringing the focus on the experience of individuals in a society or in a community to life when it is elsewhere – we tend to ignore this human quality in the study of our own society and focus on changes at the institutional level or in the economic motivations and implications of cultural practice. One manifestation of this is our obsession with the role of fans and audiences in the study of performance. The performer him/herself tends to be relegated to the Artist with a Creative Voice exploring all that is important about our world. Little is done to break down the everyday of human experience dealing with cultural change in the world artistic production.
My commitment is to go beyond the Art and Poetry of music production to explore the true mastery and cultural expression that generates musical texts – the improvisations and everyday work that transforms a hook into a song, and a song theme into a finished track. Grand narratives are always easier for audiences and producers to label, but these are not what create the music. While these grand narratives which become genre and marketing conventions and categories to sell music, the study of music production allows the exploration of the ways that performers and songwriters create performing tension that actually brings audiences into community with those texts.
Okay, so here goes the unpacking. I’ve been exploring this idea of grand narratives (the term, by the way, came directly from my friend, who is an anthropologist/folklorist whereas I’m an anthropologist/ethnomusicologist/folklorist. Not to get into a tangent but there is actually a meaningful difference which I might pick up on another time. I’ve also been exploring this issue of following the money. Westerners – and I think Americans in terms of our mainstream culture are particularly this way – are quite simplistic in our motivations, or at least the ways we represent them in our popular culture. Everything that is commercialized is plugged into some kind of grand narrative – sometimes we call it a trope or stereotype, sometimes a genre. Who does the plugging? We’re all guilty of it, but the grand masters of these narratives are the money behind them – those who market and sell the products made by creative types. I’ve done this a good deal myself when I’m being intellectually lazy, or, in a kinder moment, I simply haven’t worked through the real sets of motivations behind an intuitive sense that I need to take on a particular project.
In popular music, genres are where this becomes a way to market music. This is why race music became R&B and subsequently soul music. It’s not that the music community changed, or that the foundations of the music shifted so much – the cultural patience with labeling and its similarly unpleasant desire to segregate the music of the (white, middle-class) masses from that of (black, lower-class) other, smaller (minority group, in the sociological sense) masses for the sake of making more money.
I’ve gotten questions at conferences – last year, in fact, one of the last times I presented on my beginnings of my current round of research – about why I talk about performers and not about the audiences. I’ll put it this way. Almost everyone talks about audiences directly. Pretty much all the rest talk about the middle men who control the money. Virtually no one but me and a few other hardy folk talk about the performers – and most of them want to be performing it anyhow so it turns into auto-ethnography. That’s all well and good but I’ve had my time on stage. Okay, not true. I still get up there, I go a bit stir-crazy if I go too long without being up there, but I’m working like crazy to keep my creative and academic activities separate.
I got into academia in the first place because it occurred to me that what happens in a performer’s head and between performers in the rehearsal room is a microcosm for how culture is produced. I wondered what could possibly get someone to isolate themselves to the degree it takes to create a polished, professional performance text (of any kind). I also noticed no one else is asking the questions and at first I assumed that meant the questions weren’t important — that what I was asking about wasn’t important. I’ve learned that it is.
Two beautiful, wonderful souls have, just today!, agreed to join me in the world of ethnomusicological interviews and research. One, whom I’ve known for well over a decade, said humbly (and he’s quite humble) that he’d do the best he can since he’s not an expert. He is, by the way, an expert – an expert on how he composes, how he rehearses, how he interacts with colleagues and fellow ensemble members, how he has negotiated through his music community and created a place for himself in it. I wonder if I can use my research to help him see just how important what he does is?
That, friends and neighbors, is my agenda. This is my manifesto. Well, the first draft, anyhow.
Comments and questions are welcome.