Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Flashback to Middletown: the 2008 SEM conference.

The 2008 annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology concluded a week ago yesterday, and after my three initial blogging entries, I decided to give myself (and you) a break from my coverage. I spent the remainder of the conference sitting in panels on a wide range of subjects and attending concerts, gathering ideas for future postings, and renewing old friendships in the field as well as making new acquaintances.

The conference included several generations of participants--from graduate students giving their first "scholarly" paper to longer-standing members of the Society whose ages run into the 80s. (One highlight of the conference for me was an extended conversation with one of my mentors, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, who is about to celebrate his 81st birthday--more on this amazing man in a later post.) Last year's SEM conference in Columbus, Ohio, was the first I'd attended in 19 years, and I was delighted again this year to discover new and interesting developments in the field, among the mutltitude of avenues of research being pursued in the field during the last 20 years.

I first attended an SEM conference in New Orleans in 1966, freshly returned from two years of study of sitar and Urdu in India, and I continued to be active, attending conferences and periodically presenting papers during my academic period, ending in 1986, when I joined Voice of America as Chief of the Urdu Service, and turned my attention to journalism rather than teaching and research. My last contribution was 1988, in organizing a panel on "Public Sector Ethnomusicology," and presenting in that session a paper on "World Music at VOA." My colleagues in that panel were all employed by entities other than colleges and universities, and we felt we were breaking somewhat new ground in urging that the practice of ethnomusicology be extended beyond the halls of academe into a pro-active role that could extend beyond research to presentation, and even to advocacy.

Over the years, while continuing to examine the music of various cultures, the Society had begun to put the field itself under scrutiny, along with a critical examination of the ethics and responsibilities of the ethnomusicologist's work. An interesting example of this approach was evident in a highly controversial paper with the intriguing title (including the inevitable dual phrases separated by a colon), "Being Sneaky in the Field: The Ethics of Recording Surreptitiously." The discussion following the paper was spirited, to say the least, with a general consensus emerging that the culture being studied deserves to be respected, with complete trust essential on both sides regarding the process of documentation.

Morover, the field of ethnomusicology has expanded to explore and analyze that which is literally right at one's front door--one of the most fascinating papers being presented by Bill Boyer of New York University: "Spectacle and Performance in the New York City Subway System." He analyzed three aspects of his own experience in the subway: the observation and subsequent interviews of individuals listening to music on personal devices such as the i-Pod; a brief description of a woman discussing the sounds of the subway (the clackety-clack of the wheels, or the chimes of the closing doors) with her two sons; and an encounter with a performer on the Chinese bowed string instrument, the erhu, along with a recording of another erhu.

The paper led me to reflect on my own experiences of overhearing music being listened to (on headphones that failed to mask the sound) by fellow passengers on the Washington Metro, or the various musicians (Peruvian or Chinese, for example) I had encountered at the head of Metro escalators. Finally, it brought to mind a fascinating article on subway music written earlier this year by the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten, ordinarily the humor columnist on the last page of the Post's Sunday Magazine, described the experiment of violinist Josh Bell, a world-class professional musician who played his Stradivarius violin in the Metro, to study the reactions of passersby. What is most striking about the April 8, 2007 article, which won the author the Pulitzer Prize, is that the superb music being performed by a leading violinist on a priceless instrument drew only the most cursory attention from most of those who heard it. Click here for the full article, along with a brief video of this unusual scene.

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