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Wherefore EM?

For those of us who studied Romeo and Juliet at school, we remember that when Juliet says ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’, she doesn’t mean, ‘where are you Romeo,’ but actually, ‘why are you Romeo’ (i.e. a Montague, someone she’s not allowed to fall in love with).  I like ‘wherefore’ because it’s a broader question word than ‘why’, where, what and the others – to me it asks ‘what is ethnomusicology (EM)?’, ‘why do we do it?’, ‘where is it going?’.  (Yes, I may be stretching the point here, but this is a blog post; I’m allowed to be a little fanciful).

For me, this question of ‘wherefore EM?’ emerged strongly from this conference.  I started off on Monday clinging strongly to my refugee-raft of ‘I’m a SOCIOLOGIST, not an ethnomusicologist, I’m just a tourist here – I don’t need to fit in’.  But by Wednesday it wasn’t possible to make that distinction any more – I’d met too many people who were doing similar things to me in similar ways, whose research I strongly admired, and so I realised that I at least have a foot in the EM camp.  Which means I have to take part in the ‘Wherefore EM?’ question and debates.

I had very similar discussions at two different points during the conference.  This was about the difference between ethnomusicology and musical anthropology.  The first time round, Kristine and I decided that musical anthropology was looking at culture through the lens of music, and that EM was looking at music with a particular emphasis on the culture that produced it.  (Feel free to disagree in the comments).  I can’t remember what we decided at the second discussion because I was a bit drunk – so I was probably just repeating the same thing, only louder.

But by the end of Wednesday I realised that even that distinction was too naive – it seemed to me that people were asking really quite different questions, but because everyone has the common thread of music in different world societies, then we end up thrown together.  Some people were asking ‘what’s going on here?  What effects, long-term and short-term, will it have on the people involved?’.  Some people were in Janet Topp Fargion’s preservation camp of ‘let’s make sure that we keep this music alive if we can, and make sure we document it while we can’.  Others were asking ‘what is happening with this music, and what does that say about the culture that produces it?’.  And finally, I think I’d put myself in the camp of ‘what can/does music do?  How does it do this, and what can we learn about a culture from its music?’ (very similar to the previous one, oops).

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list by any means, so please add the big questions you’re asking to the comments.  I’m interested to see where our common ground lies once we get beyond the tip of the iceberg to the murky depths underneath.

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