Ethnomusicologists love music. We have to. I would wager that we spend more time listening to, thinking about, analyzing, performing, teaching, and learning music than other music-related fields. I know I’m going to catch flak from musicologists, composers, and theorists for that statement, but ethnomusicologists don’t just analyze the music they study. They learn to play it and teach it; they learn and perform the dances that the music accompanies; they live with the people who perform the music; they learn the language(s) their host cultures speak and they learn to cook the foods their host culture most enjoys (seriously). Ethnomusicologists immerse themselves in music and culture in ways that the general population of the other music areas don’t. Yes, we rock.
I don’t say this to take jabs at other music students, scholars, and professionals. We all need each other, and I think all the disciplines would be a lot more fun if we talked to each other more often. However, this total immersion and dedication to music got me thinking: what music do ethnomusicologists like to listen to? More than this, what kinds of music constitute an ethnomusicologist’s guilty pleasure? Hopefully the ethnomusicologist likes to listen to the music that they study. I think it’s generally the case (and not always!) that the ethno enjoys performing just as much as, if not more than, listening to the music she studies. But after a day of research, fieldwork, analysis, presentations, AND teaching, when her brain has turned to jelly and needs some musical sustenance, what kinds of music does the odd ethnomusicologist turn to?
Of course everyone has a different answer. For me though, the answer is Wagner. I discovered my love of Wagnerian opera in graduate school, right around the time my love of gamelan completely manifested itself. I have not explored a musical connection between the two although I’m open to the possibility. I enjoy all of Wagner’s operas but The Ring Cycle holds a special place in my heart. It might initially stem from my love of Norse mythology, but there’s something about those leitmotifs in those particular operas that satisfies some deep musical desire in me. The way they dance around each other before locking into a musical statement that doesn’t need words delights me in a way I never thought purely instrumental music could. I was originally a trained Western art singer and never really enjoyed purely instrumental music (wow! I’m alienating everyone today!). But I can listen to The Ring Cycle and the music will tell me exactly what’s going on and what the characters are thinking and feeling; musical references and in jokes abound. Wagner’s reputation for taking himself seriously and the weight of his operas makes any attempt at a joke that much funnier. And speaking of funny, for anyone wanting to know the joy of The Ring Cycle before actually watching it, please check out this link of Anna Russell’s analysis of the Ring. Russell is a musical comedienne who died in 2006. The story goes that upon discovering she didn’t have the chops to make it as a professional singer, she chose to poke fun at Western classical genres of vocal music. That link will take you to the best performance of her Ring analysis but it was shot towards the end of her career and her voice is not what it once was. Trust me though, you will enjoy this.
Not wanting to usurp the spotlight when it comes to discussions of ethnomusicology students’ guilty music pleasures, I talked to some of my colleagues and browbeat them into sharing. Larry Catungal, a PhD student from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, revealed a love of Europop music. His current favorite is the winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, Conchita Wurst. While finding this particular singer inspiring, Larry said that one reason he really likes Europop as a genre is that it’s not tied to one specific country and that he doesn’t have to buy into one artist. He describes Eurovision as a “big stew of music” and for him, that’s the draw.
Another student from UHM, Justin Hunter, revealed an ambiguous relationship with American pop music. While claiming it was his guilty pleasure, he also stated unequivocally that he hates pop music. After thinking about it, Justin decided that it was more a particular presence of sound that he finds comforting. Pop music isn’t distracting; he isn’t drawn to analyze it, and it can therefore exist as a wash of sound that’s comforting and invigorating while he’s working. One example he gives is “Say Something” by A Great Big World. Justin exemplifies the way an individual is hardly ever tied to just one genre of music. Another specific piece he is drawn to is Gorecki’s Sorrowful Symphony. He describes it as breathtakingly beautiful and gutwrenchingly sad.
While this might seem to be a needless case of self-reflection and narcissism, this exercise revealed to me the importance of understanding why we like something, why it moves us, and the acknowledgement that it doesn’t have to be for deep, earth-shattering reasons. Ethnomusicologists turn to all kinds of music for comfort, inspiration, because it’s funny, and because it’s there. I think there might be a paper in this…