The time of year has come for comprehensive exams and thesis/dissertation defenses. It’s also that time of year when time itself seems to be leaking away for papers to be researched and performances to be rehearsed. Many of my friends are in this process, as I will be shortly, and so I find myself turning to things that ethnomusicologists have written about themselves and their experiences. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is heartening to know that even established scholars aren’t necessarily the untouchable pillars they can appear to be. It is comforting to know that they, too, went through processes like this and that they came out the other side, changed, different, but whole.
Good morning! This is Liza, your behind-the-scenes contributor to our lovely SEM Student Union blog. Today we’re beginning a new series of posts, called “Photos from the Field.” Here, our contributors will use multimedia from their ethnomusicology fieldwork experiences to begin to answer that elusive question, “what do you DO with a degree in ethnomusicology?” I haven’t yet started my graduate work, but I’ll show you what undergrad fieldwork can look like.
For my senior honors thesis at Franklin and Marshall College, I conducted an ethnography of the Bahá’í Choral Music Festival, held in May, 2013. Conducted by Van Gilmer, the almost 200 person choir rehearsed sacred a cappella music together for two and a half days, culminating in two devotional concerts on Sunday morning. I sat in on all of this process, taking notes, making recordings, and interviewing participants. The choir’s repertoire ranged from gospel pieces composed by Gilmer, using sacred texts from the Bahá’í Faith in its lyrics, to a haunting Arabic chant, to Bach’s Dona Nobis Pacem. Ron Lynch’s photo from the festival, featured above, shows Gilmer conducting the choir on the steps of the Bahá’í House of Worship, in Wilmette, Illinois, for some lively post-concert singing.
Want to hear more about the choir and my ethnography? Stay tuned!
Ethnomusicologists have a problem. As a general rule, we conduct fieldwork to gather data and in the course of this fieldwork, we often have life-altering experiences. No matter what form one’s fieldwork takes, we meet new people, learn new things, and discover new ways of looking at the world. As human beings, we’re yanked out of our own egos and confront new realities. I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason that earlier scholars didn’t talk about their own experiences in the field: not only were they striving for a scientific objectivity, being confronted with different world views is terrifying. And what’s even more terrifying is the thought that now you have to somehow translate that experience into words on a page. How do you convey the depth of your feeling without coming across as self-serving? How do you make readers understand how fundamentally jarring and beautiful it is to be changed? Is this why ethnomusicologists are often accused of insular writing? We write for other ethnomusicologists because we know they understand.
What is it?! Over the past century or so, a plethora of articles and books have been written attempting to define the field of ethnomusicology. We, as students, can only pass on to the next level of our studies by satisfactorily establishing our comprehensive knowledge of this field. Yet when someone asks us what it is we do or study, we seek refuge in mumbling “Uh, world music” and avoiding eye contact.
It is both humbling and gratifying to realize that some of the founders of the field and even scholars today couldn’t/can’t agree on what “ethnomusicology” is/was/should be and that the definition and conceptualization of ethnomusicology has changed over the years. With this being our first post on our new site, we thought we’d start off by sharing some inspiring and edifying words from scholars old and new regarding music in general and ethnomusicology in particular. Here is what they’ve had to say: