In Discipline: Talks from the European Side

For this week’s In Discipline post, we are very pleased to introduce Iva Nenic. Iva is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ethnomusicology of Faculty of Music in Belgrade. She writes very eloquently about the joys and challenges of ethnomusicology students in Serbia.


About you: What is your academic history and where have you studied ethnomusicology? If you were born in a place that is different from where you’re currently studying, what motivated your academic move?

At Belgrade’s Faculty of Music where I studied, the ethnomusicology program starts at the undergraduate level. I stumbled upon ethnomusicology at the age of sixteen, after graduating the high school of music a bit earlier than usual and already having an interest in ‘cultural’ themes. At that point, everything regarding ethnomusicology was very new to me, and I enjoyed the major turn my education took from studying European classical music towards a scientific approach to Serbian traditional music and, to a lesser extent, musics of the world. As an undergrad student, I studied a wide array of subjects, from the introduction of general ethnomusicological issues to studying the styles of traditional multipart singing, analyzing theories of musicality in different cultures, transcribing rare and fascinating non-tempered melodies, dancing folk dances and writing them down, to courses in ear training, counterpoint, sociology of music, aesthetics, and so on. Still a freshman, I was supposed to do a quite serious research project as the students were required to carry out independent research projects each year and produce papers of good ranking and present them before other students and professors of the Ethnomusicology department at the end of the academic year. I became quite passionate about that particular aspect of ‘doing ethnomusicology’ early on in the course of my studies. Theoretical and research work was well balanced with the practice of transcribing music, and also with the practical training in folk dancing in ethnochoreology classes. Also, my generation was the first one to get optional singing lessons and to become trained in various styles of Serbian traditional vocal music, so I quickly embraced ethnomusicology as an educational choice.

However, my initial idea was that I would be able to study the musical cultures of the world in all their different (historical and present) multitudes. As the ruling paradigm of Serbian ethnomusicology was, and still predominantly is, organized around the research and preservation of local folk music traditions, I found that direction both absolutely fascinating and somewhat limiting in terms of pursuing other research subjects. So, while being thoroughly informed in matters of vocal and instrumental music traditions of Serbia and the region (which I enjoyed very much), at the same time I sought educational venues where my other research and theoretical interests could blossom. One such place was Petnica Science Center, an institution offering study programs in natural and social sciences designed for high school and junior university students. As a junior assistant at Petnica’s Dpt. of Social Anthropology and Ethnology, I was able to learn more about contemporary anthropological research subjects, theory and methodology, which in turn molded my approach to ethnomusicology.

The general state of higher education in Serbia in the nineties (which is the period when I started my long university adventure) wasn’t perfect at all. The universities were in a state of permanent crisis due to the social turmoil that occurred in the last decade of the 20th century, after the break of former Yugoslavia, wars, and the gradual erosion of state institutions after the fall of communism. Many young people of my generation sought informal education in order to fill the voids of the formal university programs that were too rigid or simply outdated. There were a few non-governmental programs and study networks that offered exciting new topics, an interdisciplinary climate, and discussion opportunities on a wide variety of politically and culturally relevant issues. I took a part in that tide during the last years of my BA level studies by attending the Advanced Program of Belgrade Open School (BOŠ) designed for future leaders, social activists, and independent thinkers, and also a one-year core program at Belgrade’s Center for Women Studies, where I was introduced to feminism and gender studies. Both programs taught me how to think beyond the limits and had a great role in shaping of my future research interests.

After I graduated from the Department of Ethnomusicology, I obtained a MPhil degree in Theory of Arts and Media program at the University of Arts in Belgrade. This escapade allowed me to return with fresh ideas to the Dpt. of Ethnomusicology of Faculty of Music in Belgrade where I’m currently a doctoral candidate, just about to complete my degree.

What theories or issues are you tackling in your personal research?

My initial interests were in traditional music of Serbia and the Balkans. I have been researching the world music scenes of Serbia and the Balkans since 1999, both as a participant-observer and a performer, raising the questions of genres, hybridity and interculturalism, cultural politics and ideology. I did pioneering research on Serbian hip-hop and rap, as an attempt to survey ideological antagonisms that pervaded Serbian society at the time, and I also worked on different aspects of the Serbian turbo folk/pop folk music – highly popular mainstream culture that blends together local idioms of urbanized folk music, Western pop musical styles, and the borrowing of foreign pop folk of Eastern origin. Late and post-Marxist theory of ideology is a major research topic I’m interested in. By working on certain concepts formulated in critically oriented cultural studies, Lacanian psychoanalysis and late Marxist theory, to name a few, I try to formulate new and retune existing theoretical models in order to better comprehend the ideological aspects of contemporary music. I also wrote extensively on the topics of gender, identity, and womanhood. My ongoing research since 2008 is focused on the female performers of folk traditional music instruments in Serbia, as a genealogy of their absence from the official scholarly and cultural discourses, and as a study of gender dynamics of contemporary scenes of neotraditional and world music. An outcome of that research in the realm of theory is a model of identification through music that relies on theory of performatives, Althusserian model of interpellation, and contemporary approaches to subjectification and identity processes. In regard to that, it might be said that my work also tackles the issues of representation, feminist epistemology and epistemology of science, and generally belongs to the post-disciplinary context of what might be labeled as a postmodern study of cultural, ideological and individual reproduction through music.

About your program of study (graduate): Can you tell us about ethnomusicology in your academic world?

Serbian ethnomusicology has historical legacy of collecting, classifying, and studying national folk music heritage, much like the similar research projects of other Southeastern European countries. Although the historical model of folk music study still remains important in today’s university curricula, there are many new clusters of research topics regarding different aspects of music as culture and music as a sonic phenomenon that shape the present paradigm of Serbian ethnomusicology. Approximately from the end of the eighties, Serbian ethnomusicology started to gradually move from a strict folk music study towards a more interdisciplinary approach by opening new theoretical and methodological issues regarding the classification and analysis of traditional music and also by introducing ‘outside’ perspectives such as semiotics and communication into ethnomusicological thinking.  Since  the mid-nineties its subject matter, theoretical, and research approaches have multiplied significantly. While the study of traditional music of Serbia still remains vital, nowadays different generations of scholars explore diverse phenomena, such as the revival of musical traditions of Serbia and the Balkans, transculturalism and transregionalism in traditional music, popular and urban music in Serbia, music and meaning, music and identity processes, etc, while simultaneously working within different theoretical frameworks (semiotics/semiology, poststructuralism, theories of popular culture/popular music, music and gender, music and affect). Unlike some ethnomusicological programs in the West where ethnomusicology is strongly related to anthropology, the very placement of the program within the Faculty of Music and the structure of university curriculum still stresses many ‘musical’ subjects and gives a different flavor to Serbian ethnomusicology, where in the pairing of “music and culture”, music tends to be a slightly more privileged member.  The main dispute between coexisting ethnomusicological paradigms in Serbia is often perceived as a break between traditional music and ‘other’ musics as privileged objects of study by its practitioners. As I see it, the true antagonism is about what ethnomusicology should ‘do’, rather than ‘study’, so a breach between culturalist approaches (where the object of study is a practice, behavior or community organized around music) and musically-centered approaches (where the sonic structures and materialities still serve as the most valued elements of research and scholarly presentation) is maybe more important regarding that matter.

As it is often the case with global ethnomusicological communities, in Serbia too individual research directions sometimes remain insular and each researcher is a sole expert in her/his own very specific field, sometimes resulting in the lack of joint exploration of some more general issues. On the other hand, the century-long history and accumulation of folkloristic and ethnomusicological proper research, together with recent multiplication of research topics and methodologies provides Serbian ethnomusicology a rich environment to reorganize itself. Ideologically, a unison setting is always a problematic place for scientific study to start from, so the present ‘dispersion’ of Serbian ethnomusicology in terms of ideologies, approaches and intentions is actually a good symptom of its ongoing change.

Is the discipline part of a larger university department? If so, which one?

Ethnomusicology can be studied from the undergraduate level at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade and the Academy of Music in Novi Sad. The Ethnomusicology Department at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade so far has produced some of the most significant scholars, music teachers, media editors, and social activists who left their imprint on culture in Serbia. As ethnomusicology and musicology were two programs sharing the same department at Belgrade’s Faculty of Music up to 2006, Serbian ethnomusicology initially had a strong base in the humanities, with a focus on musical structures, formal musical analysis, etc. After the Bologna study reform, Belgrade’s Department of Ethnomusicology prides itself on a variety of courses in historical and contemporary ethnomusicological and ethnochoreological issues, and it offers BA, master, and doctoral degrees. Apart from two programs in Belgrade and Novi Sad, during the last decade some ethnomusicological courses have been integrated into programs of some other Serbian faculties of music (for example, Kragujevac and Niš).

How do your academic mentors/peers react to your theoretical takes?

Usually my interest in strong theoretical output stemming from ethnomusicology provokes positive reactions in the local academic community, though sometimes I do encounter a certain resistance in terms of refusing “posh” contemporary theory and defending the ‘conventional’ ethnomusicological means and methods (I personally don’t believe that there is a common denominator for ethnomusicology, so I must admit that I don’t take this sort of critique seriously). During my undergraduate studies I was lucky enough to have a professor who understood and nurtured my impulse towards thinking in models and in ‘importing’ theories from other fields into understanding music and musical cultures, being herself inclined towards interdisciplinarity in ethnomusicology. She is my mentor now, and I’m indebted to her not only for the support and the knowledge I received during the long process of formal education, but also for the viewpoints differing from my own she sometimes shared with me: being able to perceive the difference and grasp the confronting position is very important in the constant dialogue required if the science strives to keep going, instead of getting stuck in worn-out statements. As a scholar, I have met many positive responses through conference and lecturing experiences, especially from students and younger colleagues.  Hailing from my research and writing, gender theory has proven to be the most ‘catchy’ theoretical position for the wider audience, and the theoretical schemata regarding the relation of identification and ideology seem to be the most ‘entangled’ ones. Sometimes the concepts I use (and often introduce) in the discourse of local ethnomusicology are either claimed to be well-known in the older body of research (for example, a stance that one could dub “oh we know what gender is, a Woman does this, and Man does that”), or threatening to the status of some well-known ‘truths’ or dominant explanatory paradigms. The good illustration of the latter is my public presentation of female gusle players (gusle is a string bowed lute played to accompany epic poetry most often by male performers in Serbia and in the Balkans):  when I offer a corrective of a matter-of-fact perspective that only men play this instrument (and that women who dare to must be always ‘exceptional’ or virile by social merits), some people rush to correct me and reaffirm the male dominance over the social structure of gusle tradition. So a stance that women do play a certain instrument tends to be misinterpreted that actually only women are true carriers of gusle playing practice. I see these misunderstandings as symptoms of underlining ideological battles characteristic of the field of science in general, in terms of claiming the ‘truth’ of a social reality through the means of ethnographic and theoretical presentation.

Is music performance part of your program, and what are your thoughts on its inclusion or exclusion?

Music performance is an important part of Belgrade’s studies of ethnomusicology. Actually many students are initially attracted to ethnomusicology after being trained in traditional music performance during their secondary education, or simply by having a preference towards neotraditional or “ethno” music. Belgrade’s program of ethnomusicology has been offering its students an opportunity to informally learn traditional singing since 1998, and the subject of traditional singing was formally introduced in the curriculum in 2011. The very same year this subject also included some practice in instrumental music, mainly of playing frula (traditional rural aerophone). As a student, I found the performance of traditional songs to be a unique and enchanting experience which only added to the overall quality of my chosen study program. The formal training in traditional music performance is important as it gives a different perspective on music, and sometimes allows for ‘bi’ or ‘multimusicality’ to develop as a heuristic position and creates skilled future performers and vocal/instrumental trainers. Yet the performance should not outweigh other dimensions of a study program (research, applied work), and maintaining that balance is always a challenging, albeit rewarding, task.

Is fieldwork taught as part of your course load?

Some issues regarding fieldwork are formally covered during the undergraduate studies, although on a more introductory level. A student is usually exposed to fieldwork in the second or third year of undergraduate studies. This first “small” fieldwork experience is supervised by a professor who serves as a mentor and who is willing to either enlist a team of students to her own field research, or to counsel students in creating questionnaires, designing interview protocols, and in planning the field trip. Also there is a recent practice of offering fieldwork to a group of local and foreign students of ethnomusicology as a part of Summer Art School organized by University of Arts in Belgrade, which proved to work very nicely in the last couple of years.

Fieldwork methods, techniques, and approaches are handled on a more profound level during the master studies program. A course titled “Contemporary ethnomusicological research in Serbia and in the world” specifically covers different issues, from conventional methods such as participant observation or recording of music sessions to feminist ethnography, in-depth interviewing, hermeneutics of performance as a method of field work, use of ethnographic fieldnotes, and so on. Apart from that, I still have an impression that fieldwork methodology in Serbian ethnomusicology is a bit stiff in comparison to main disciplinary currents regarding methods and methodology on the world level. Sometimes the problem is in its somewhat restrictive focus on musical aspects, and for many ethnographers fieldwork still tacitly equals the research of rural communities’ musical legacies and traditions, or the chosen phenomenon must have something ‘folk’ about it. This is not to say that there are no excellent individual or team fieldwork projects based on carefully thought-out and innovative methodological solutions, but that those approaches stay outside the ruling paradigm of research (for example, in the subfields of urban and experimental ethnomusicology, etc).

Does your program have any language requirements?

As the program is conducted in Serbian, the main requirement is spoken and written Serbian. Students are required to take one foreign language course, and the common choice is English.

What are the main journals/associations/conferences produced in your academic country?

There are two journals for musicology and ethnomusicology now published in English: New Sound International Journal of Music and The Journal of Musicology (Muzikologija). New Sound was founded in 1993, as a continuation of the Yugoslav journal Sound (Zvuk), which helped establish Yugoslav sciences on music, and Muzikologija started rather ambitiously in 2000, seeking to promote the dialogue between local musicology and ethnomusicology and the global ones by publishing articles and reviews by Serbian and foreign authors. So far, there have been many international conferences and national meetings organized either by the Faculty of Music in Belgrade or by the Institute of Musicology of Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Most recently, Serbia hosted the Fourth Symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Music and Dance in Southeastern Europe, held in September 2014 at the Petnica Science Center (Valjevo), organized by the Faculty of Music and PSC.

Ethnomusicology, power, and production: What issues would you highlight regarding the weight of economic/political power (or lack thereof) and academic production at your institution? At your university, is there pressure to “produce” a number of articles per semester? Is there pressure to publish in English, or another specific language, or to publish in certain peer reviewed journals? If so, which ones? What are your thoughts on this 

According to the new scoring system introduced during the last decade in Serbia, there is a strong demand to increase the textual output in terms of monographs, study books, and articles in peer reviewed journals. Those new rules imply that the scientific work must be measured according to the system of evaluation designed by the Ministry of Science, where each published paper scores a certain number of points, and their sum on annual level defines the research rank of a scholar who participates in state-sponsored research projects, impacting not only the status in scientific community, but the earnings as well. Also, the quantity of published papers and books and the subsequent research grade score are defined as prerequisites for moving up within the hierarchy of university positions, from the teaching assistant to tenure. This system has many good sides, as well as many disadvantages. For example, while the idea to stimulate people to become productive and more creative is adequate, in practice it often turns into a frantic rush to “publish or perish.” Some journals with a good rank on the official lists are overloaded with articles, while the other ones, although being excellent, are getting less attention as they were not lobbied into a high rank position in the official bodies. For the ethnomusicologists holding university jobs, this translates into a twofold task: it goes without saying that one needs to constantly improve his/her courses, while at the same time keeping pace with the desired level of textual production in order to achieve the position of a top-ranked researcher and stay relevant for the wider community. As a specific mixture of a control performed by state and the neoliberal urge to increase production, this model is much under critique today, although the alternatives are hard to promote.

Two chief journals for ethnomusicology, New Sound and Musicology, that once published articles in Serbian, transferred to English a couple of years ago. While the prevalence of English as today’s lingua franca increases the scope of potential readers beyond national borders and promotes stronger bonds between ethnomusicological communities, there are other consequences that should also be considered. For example, I witnessed some funny situations when the international conference would proclaim English as its official language, but almost all attendants were from Serbia and some neighboring countries, so certain panels ended up using English, instead speaking mutually comprehensible BCS languages. I believe that publishing should strive for both local language and a major international language, in order to promote diversity and reduce the current hegemonic structural position of certain research traditions and directions. This may seem as an impossible task, but I firmly believe it could be achieved, thus enabling us as people claiming to be responsible for intercultural translations and dialogues, to swim against the tide of contemporary status quo of global capitalism.

Ethnomusicology students and finances: What is the economic situation at your home institution? How has it changed in the past 5-10 years? How has this situation impacted students’ lives? Are hiring conditions fair at your home institution/academic country? Are there enough ethnomusicology professors? Are university fees easily payable? Is funding available to students, and how do they support their graduate studies/life while in school? Are there ways to financially support your fieldwork, or do you have to pay it yourself?

Since the Serbian state introduced a neoliberal capitalistic model, universities are under the constant pressure to find money, as the state pulls back from financing higher education. During Yugoslav communism, studying was free, and this legacy partly lingered after the break of communism, but today only those who obtain the highest scores on entry tests and exams are allowed to study without paying. Unlike many Western countries, there is no specific system for student loans, so a person depends on their parents if his or her high school grades and entry scores aren’t high enough. It is formally possible to work and study; however, in practice there aren’t many jobs designed for the students, and many times study programs are quite intense and require full time attendance. University fees for the arts are moderately high, but during the present economic crisis they simply became too high for most people. As for the fieldwork, there aren’t many official options either. A master or doctoral student is eligible for a fee supporting fieldwork trips, buying of equipment, and some other minor expenses only through state-sponsored research projects, but first one must be elected as a team member, which is a somewhat restricted option. Another possibility is to apply for certain funds through the NGO network, which also works, but requires a great skill in writing projects and in team building, which is usually not taught during undergraduate and master studies. As a member of a research project at my home department, I was able to fund my trips through the project finances in the course of doctoral studies. However, during the first round of my formal education, there were no such possibilities for undergrads, so I relied on an alternative, and as a member of Young Researchers of Serbia went on exploratory field trips using my own and some borrowed equipment, sleeping in unused factory facilities and walking great distances in the wild on foot. Also, there is an interesting difference between the globally prevalent model of ethnomusicological research  when a person most often studies a culture ‘other than his/her own’, and the kind of research promoted in my home country, but also in many Southeastern European countries, where official funding is usually available for the research within the state or national boundaries. In other words, it is very hard to get money to do a research ‘abroad’ (except for doing diaspora studies).

European Ethnomusicology: Is there frequent communication among European-based ethnomusicologists? If yes, how does this communication

Strangely enough my first encounter with contemporary ethnomusicology other than Serbian took place at SEM conferences in early 2000s. Therefore for a long time, I knew more about new things and trends in American ethnomusicology and had a more blurry picture of the processes going on in Europe. As a number of Serbian ethnomusicologists are becoming increasingly active in ICTM, myself and others included, I could witness how the connections between European ethnomusicologies are being actively forged, and sometimes it’s a pleasure to observe how the similar problems and themes are assessed in different research schools and traditions. This exchange is promising but should be more intensified in the future if the ideal of the EU as a great transnational space with a free flow of ideas (not only the commodities) is to be achieved at least in minimum.   As examples of good practices, I would single out the work of some ICTM study groups (for example, the Study Group for Music and Dance in Southeastern Europe), or the Hildesheim workshop aimed at doctoral students, where ethnomusicologists of the younger generation can not only share particular research and ideas but also forge future professional and personal connections.

Ethnomusicology and future times: What do you think about the future of ethnomusicology/ethnomusicologists in your region? What professional opportunities exist for ethnomusicology graduates in your region?

Ethnomusicology in Serbia is at an interesting, probably turning point, when different ‘futures’ are possible. On the one hand, the trend of preserving national, ethnic, and overall folk music remains solid; on the other, many new research subjects are popping out, coupled with interesting, and sometimes refreshing or even original theoretical insights. The advantage is that its long history as an independent academic discipline, and the present mixture of different generations of scholars and the competing paradigms they promote, allows for many interesting directions and turns to take place. For example, the applied work is now seen almost as a necessity, especially among young graduates who are willing to work with local communities and different interest groups organized around music. Also, the visibility of local scholars in major ethnomusicological associations, institutions, and events started to gradually increase approximately a decade ago. This seems to be a good sign not only for the growth of Serbian ethnomusicology, but also for the benefit of transnational ethnomusicology, because the only way to de-hegemonize the discipline on the global level is to create more dialogue and more hospitable spaces, as a double bind between local and the global.

On the other hand, there are certain structural maladies that haunt Serbian ethnomusicology on a local level. The job market and the demand for ethnomusicological work appear to be pretty chaotic and torn between state regulation and the reality of everyday economic struggles and institutions that still linger on models of work that were practiced during communism. Many young people are referred to jobs in the educational sector (e.g. state schools of music, elementary schools), but other educational profiles, like musicologists, music theorists, and so on, apply for the same positions, so the situation is quite competitive. Work in the domain of media and culture is also possible, but the number of institutional positions is limited. In order to stay within the broad limits of what is considered ‘doing ethnomusicology’, one has to be very creative and prone towards learning management and organizational skills that are not taught during the studies.  There are some exciting work possibilities in the alternative cultural sector, but many people stay there for a limited time, as they grow bored of constant insecurities and living from one project to another.


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