“What would you do,” a professor once asked, “if you’ve only got three weeks left of your fieldwork and your interlocutors aren’t responding to you?” She asked this of me and a fellow student several years ago when we were taking one of her classes. I think she was a bit frustrated at our frustration. One of the requirements for the class was a paper that added new research to and knowledge about an area of the world that has been under-studied by ethnomusicologists. For this paper, she wanted us to go as far as we could in conducting fieldwork without actually traveling anywhere. We were to use email, Facebook, Skype, phone calls, anything that would put us in direct contact with actual people. And my people weren’t picking up the phone. Or answering emails. Or responding to Facebook messages. In desperation, I turned to my professor, and she asked me the above question.
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.
Ted Solis’ (ed.) wonderful work Performing Ethnomusicology is well-known among ethnomusicology students. If you haven’t read it, go read it right now! We won’t tell any of your profs. The work addresses numerous issues involved with teaching world music ensembles at academic institutions. While the main focus was on teaching–and therefore, from the teachers’ perspectives–a few authors included the voices of their students. Playing the music that we study has become a given in our field, but rarely do we talk about what this music means to us, how we benefit from the experience, particularly in the academic setting. The expectation is that we will play and sing and dance while in the field and that this experience will make our ethnographies that much richer. But it is also interesting to consider what happens before we leave for the field, while we play in the ensembles often taught by the very teachers who contributed to Performing Ethnomusicology.