Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

Beverley Diamond – Patriarchs at work: Reflections on an ethnomusicological symposium in 1963


The memory of the symposium is still quite vivid to me and it comes as something of a shock to realize how long ago this was. (Robert Garfias, “Introduction and Commentary. Reflections on the Symposium,” p. 2)

A valuable historical resource is available at this link, thanks to Robert Garfias. I offer a few reflections on this resource in hopes of stimulating some other posts about disciplinary history and the ways to read the ideas of our academic predecessors (and thankfully also our contemporary elders in some cases) .

garfiasRobert Garfias

 The document is a set of photographs, a symposium introduction by Garfias, presentations by prominent ethnomusicologists of the day, and transcripts of their discussion at a unique ethnomusicology symposium hosted by the University of Washington in 1963. We should cherish the fact that two participants and others of their generation are still active in the Society for Ethnomusicology. Presenters described their views of the discipline with particular attention to fieldwork. It was a heady moment in the discipline, one where there was a sense of a distinctive emerging disciplinary identity only a few years after the first conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and in the midst of the first expansion of academic positions at UCLA in particular.

The presenters were Mantle Hood, Harold Powers, Shigeo Kishibe[i], who developed the ideas for the symposium and suggested participants, Robert Garfias, William Malm, David McAllester, Nicholas England, and Alan Merriam. Among the discussants were Charles Seeger, José Maceda, Willem Adriaansz, Max Harrell, and Tom Kassa; the discussion transcripts also include interventions by the medievalists James McKinnon and David Morton. A single woman attendee, identified as Ayame Tsutakawa—a promotor of Japanese arts who was married to George Tsutakawa, a sculptor who taught at the University of Washington’s School of Art at the time—is visible in the symposium photographs.

KishibeShigeo Kishibe

Garfias describes the presenters as “the second generation of ethnomusicologists” (after Hornbostel, Stumpf, Kunst, and Sachs), a phrase that is accurate as simple description but one that has a certain aura of import, perhaps even entitlement. The import was noted explicitly by Mantle Hood, who describes the meeting as “one of the most distinctive conclaves of active participants in the field of ethnomusicology in my experience.”

At the same time, they expressed vulnerability to a greater degree than one currently sees at most ethnomusicological gatherings. It was a safe space, perhaps because they were all men, all somewhat established and feeling honored to be there. The vulnerability is evident in stories about fieldwork failures, problems of access, and other difficulties that they encountered. Malm frames his presentation as “confessions of an ethnomusicologist.” Garfias reflects on American assumptions about their own prestige in the world when he says “my arrival on the scene did not cause the sensation I had somehow hoped for.” In a couple of instances, there are admissions that they could only “feel” the music of their own culture.

They were, in fact, mostly early to mid-career scholars at this point, except for Charles Seeger, the elder statesman at age 77. While Garfias was the youngest, all were in their thirties and forties except McAllester and Kishibe, who had edged into their fifties. Garfias notes the absence of Bruno Nettl but one could also look in vain for other established colleagues: Rhodes, Kolinski, Wachsman, Richard Waterman or John Blacking. The selection was partly due to Shigeo Kishibe’s original intent to gather Asian studies specialists, who predominate; Kishibe and Garfias then expanded the group somewhat with McAllester, England, and Merriam.

group photo 1

The photographs depict this array of rather formally attired men, seated at a conference table with ashtrays at every space, the smoke-encircled enclave of dark-suited men an iconic image of academic patriarchy. It’s hard to read body language from the photos, although I can’t help but observe that Seeger looks distraught with head in his hands in two of the photos (including the one above). There is an outer circle with lesser knowns (including graduate students perhaps, or ensemble directors such as Max Harell, who was not yet appointed at UCLA and, as mentioned above, Ayame Tsutakawa).

While audio recordings were played according to the transcripts, the technologies that are visible in the photos include, predictably, a blackboard, a few pens and pads of paper, those ash trays, some coffee cups, and print materials. The need for print—to show photos or transcriptions perhaps—was clear in the pre-digital era. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the stack of books surprises me: about three dozen, arranged almost like ramparts down the centre of the table between those seated on opposite sides. Some photos show individuals looking intently through some of the volumes. This physical and visual validation of literacy had parallels in their discussion.

What can we learn about their motives for studying other cultures?

MalmWilliam Malm

Malm is perhaps the most explicit when he says that he seeks to help cultures survive, perhaps foreshadowing current debates about cultural sustainability. Powers, on the other hand, overtly wants to change teaching methods “to try and teach the students [in other cultures] to think…Westernize them to the extent that they are perceptive on a more conscious level.” McAllester explains that he has “felt most success in the role of the preserver of the tradition, though why a stranger from outside should feel the call to do this understandably escapes the imagination of many of the local people.”

There are some predictable aspects to the symposium presentations, many of which are noted by Robert Garfias in his fascinating introduction. He points out debates about disciplinary identity, and particularly the methodological division between those trained in music or anthropology. Garfias sees this event as pivotal in staking out the oppositional ground that Merriam and Hood would occupy through the 1970s.

In spite of traces of continuing interest in questions of universals, the terms of and reasons for their different positionings were presented as quite rigid and stark categorizations, binaries in most cases, although Charles Seeger attempted interventions on several occasions to dismantle some of these: simple/complex, fixed/improvised, tribal/urban, literate/non-literate, sonic structures/culture, musicologists/anthropologists, insiders/outsiders. To our eyes over half a century later, various conflations of these binaries amount to highly problematic over-arching and totalizing constructs that are racist at worst and rigid at best. The entwined and porous processes of cultural production and reception that we more often focus on today would probably have been unthinkable for some of the 1963 participants.

MerriamAlan P. Merriam

I wonder, however, where our own blind spots lie. Do we yet acknowledge problematic concepts that underpin settler colonialism or recognize their traces in our work? I will also add some observations about issues that they did not discuss directly but referenced nonetheless: interdisciplinarity, embodiment, technology, and ethics. Notably absent are discussions of power relations, and for the most part there is little mention of international, national, or local events that shaped musical practices.

Group phopto 2

The assumptions that underpinned various disciplinary formations were baldly asserted and occasionally questioned. The most blatant of these was the assumption that anthropologists (e.g., Merriam and McAllester) should study African or Native American music while musicological approaches were more appropriate for the art music traditions of Asia. Malm avoided stating this directly but rather indicated that he is a “product musicologist.” Powers reflected a widely held musicological view of the time, that in cultures with elite art traditions, music is separable from the cultures as a whole. He goes on to state that “a privileged ruling class” and “more or less independent theory of music” are marks of “civilization” and this is what “permits” scholars “to work in musical terms.” Merriam also veered toward a racist simplification when he referred to Africa “where you don’t tend to have a very differentiated type of society.” England stated more ambiguously that “the level of culture at which the people under investigation exists is the primary factor governing methodology in an ethnomusicologist’s work.”

McAllesterDavid McAllester

McAllester, on the other hand, questions the hierarchies, with reference to the “century of dishonour” in dealing with Native Americans, and by modestly asserting that “I need more musical sophistication than I have” to study Navaho music well, noting in his presentation the many genres that Navajo have created, alongside their sand paintings, silver work, and rug weaving., He argues that “a tribal music may well be as complex as a classical music,” not that “one music is more ‘social’ or more ’musical’ than another, but that the interests of the observer are likely to be more social or musical according to his background.”

Among the musicologists present, Powers has the greatest dislike for fieldwork, commenting in a response to McAllester that “when you started talking about the kind of work that you do, and how much you do, I figured I would spend the summer at the seashore!” Garfias recalls Seeger’s response to the discussion of such disciplinary distinctions: “Seeger—I can see him throwing up his hands—argues that we cannot allow this kind of scholarly anarchy to take over the field, one kind of ethnomusicology for one music and a different one for another.” Some argue that teamwork is the only way to do ethnomusicology adequately—a comment that was quite thinkable for American scholars in a period when such academic teams were sponsored by U.S. agencies but was unthinkable for those working in less affluent countries. Malm, for instance, believed that a single scholar could not do a good job on the broad range of both musical and anthropological topics of relevance to understanding music. Seeger’s response was classic: “Then we don’t do anything very well, but we live.”

A conflation that surprised me concerned improvisation, a topic that was inevitably tied to the validation of notation, literacy, and fixity, but was also used by some to hierarchize different cultures. Some offer culture-specific comments about improvisation. Hood reflects on the complications of group improvisation and the different degrees of completeness in scores for gamelan. He proffers admiration for the subtle way repeated patterns are varied. But his ambivalence shows when he asserts that his teacher “could not impart the fundamental principles which support improvisation.”

Maceda and PowersJosé Maceda, Harold Powers

Powers quotes Hood on the relatedness of fluent improvisation and cultural competence, but is unequivocal when he states that “a single disadvantage in working with Indian music…is the necessity of learning to improvise.” McAllester again tempers the discussion by observing that while Apaches improvise funny and sometimes critical verbal speech in the middle of songs, Navaho would be “scandalized” if they witnessed such a performance. He also questioned the print-driven emphasis on a “note” arguing that “Maybe you have a false reality, something that doesn’t really exist—a note.”

The sweeping assessments of improvised music vis à vis composed music, as well as examples from local practice that demonstrate the falsity of such sweeping assessments, are arguably echoing today. Improvisation scholars now more often claim the moral high ground, arguing that such responsive musical practices are vehicles for building community or imagining future possibilities. Some contemporary improvising musicians respond, as McAllester did in 1963, with examples that show the cultural specificity of their practice and the problematic nature of searching for universals.

While many participants were skeptical about the feasibility of studying sonic and performance aspects while attending equally to cultural issues, they had little fear of interdisciplinarity. Kishibe’s historical work on T’ang Dynasty music was far-ranging. Given the fragmentation and scarcity of materials, he turned to such things as literary materials, court historians, and even books on medicine, aware of the difficulties of interpreting fragments found in these sources. Hood’s well-known fascination with science is evident in his description of collaboration with cognitive and computer scientists.

Hood_edited-1Mantle Hood

In hindsight, one can see that other topics were prescient: Garfias’ multisensory presentation of embodying sound, as he describes instrument construction as well as playing techniques for the “sound of bamboo”; Merriam’s call for re-studies; Malm’s acknowledgement of media as a factor that shapes what an ethnomusicologist might or might not choose to record; McAllester’s concern with listening practices and his constant attunement to the perspective of the culture bearers with whom he worked.

The shifts of emphasis in our discipline during the last half century have indeed been extensive and multifaceted. It is all too easy to think that we know better, rather than seriously exploring what made their ideas thinkable at a certain time and place. This fascinating set of papers should encourage such exploration. Of course it will be equally fascinating to see what ideas will stand the scrutiny of ethnomusicologists in another fifty years.

Beverley Diamond

Memorial University of Newfoundland


[i] Japanese names are given Western-style here, with the family name second.


2 thoughts on “Beverley Diamond – Patriarchs at work: Reflections on an ethnomusicological symposium in 1963

  1. Pingback: An early ethnomusicology symposium | Bibliolore

  2. Pingback: “Patriarchs at work: Reflections on an ethnomusicological symposium in 1963” | Ethnomusicology

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