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.
These thoughts can lead to many fields of inquiry that we’ll probably meander through in this blog, but today my main purpose was to let you know about an author and a work who, for me anyway, hits this ethnomusicological conundrum squarely on the head. Michael Bakan’s 1999 work Music of Death and New Creation: Experiences in the World of Balinese Gamelan Beleganjur explores the world and traditions of…wait for it!…beleganjur ensembles in Bali. Surrounding this, however, are stories of Bakan’s own experiences learning the music of the ensemble and specifically, beleganjur drumming. In his book, Bakan proposes an alternative ethnomusicological approach, one that legitimizes the ethnomusicologists’ own experiences. At the beginning of the book, he gives my favorite definition of ethnomusicology: “the study of how music lives in the lives of people who make and experience it, and of how people live in the music they make” (18). And, in the final chapter, he provides the most compelling description of music making I have ever read. I’m not going to lie, I cried the whole way through. What Bakan describes is, I think, why I am an ethnomusicologist.
Heather A. Strohschein