Hypothetical Musicologies

Got to keep that party movin', Just like I told you.

Kick the old-school joints, For the true funk soldiers. Musicology!

(Prince 2004)


If I were young and energetic I would, for example, try to convince my colleagues to promote and practice a “musicology of the nascent state” or “genesis musicology”, because I'm fascinated by the origins, by where and how do things have their beginning. That is something we can hardly ever find out and the, when it happens, only in a very approximate manner. And yet new genres and styles appear all the time, but their “nascent stage” never gets observed, documented and studied in real time.

When Punk began to make itself visible, scholars
did not rush on site to witness what was happening. British Dub-Step is by now more than twenty years old, and little is known about it in scholarly terms; and it already is too late to gain a first hand understanding of its very beginnings. We know, of course, the historical reasons why musicologists did not rush to New Orleans when jazz was in the cradle. Back then they were affected by the highbrow bias; by residual Romantic attitudes about how art-work prove to be art-works when they withstand the test of time. (1) But now that attitudes have changed, it is too bad that the birth of new traditions, genres or styles should be born unnoticed. (2) I wish there were a small community of scholars, ready to intercept, new forms of musicking whenever and wherever they may be happening. And even if eventually nothing really conspicuous develops, where and when it had seemed likely to, that would be worth understanding just as much. The story of failed styles, genres or traditions could tell us as much about cultural dynamics as that of successful ones. In sum, I feel musicology should be where things happen. (3) I wish musical scholarship were less interested in the past and more keen on understanding what is happening right now.

Another form of musicology I wish would exist is what I could call “terminal-stage musicology”, the study that is, of traditions that
are on their way to extinction. At the present time, much energy is invested in salvaging endangered traditions (languages, rituals, festivities, musics). And yet, when confronted with the incipient extinction of something I sense a “divided self”, somewhat like Robert Schumann's Florestan and Eusebius. The emotional Florestan in me would like to preserve everything; would like to live in the present, fully incorporating the past into it. And yet the more cautious Eusebius feels that preserving everything is not only objectively impossible, but not necessarily desirable. In the end, the question is whether we should contemplate circumstances, and establish criteria, that help us decide when a cultural practice of any kind could/should be let go, die, and – so to say – rest in peace. When that happens a rigorous, scientific autopsy would be highly desirable.




(1) This has a lot to do with the “lowbrow-highbrow dynamics”. Genres are usually born lowbrow, and later begin to gain respect (Blues, Tango, Fado, etc.). Although highbrow and lowbrow live in the same world, quite often in the same work of art, and just as often in the cultural world of the same person, prejudiced in favor of highbrow practices is still strong.

(2) It is more accurate to say that concepts connected to Romantic aesthetics (“highbrow vs. lowbrow”, “work of art”, “masterpiece-immortality”, “genius”, “authenticity”, “originality”) have been recognized to be unavoidably ideological and, therefore, time-bound. They survive, however, quite strongly, in popular culture and that makes it difficult for scholars to fully abandon the bias they embody. even in the domain of popular music studies, the exceptional (say the U-2s, or Adele) is more likely to gain attention than amateur rock bands playing in a garage, at the outskirts of our cities.

(3) In this connection an old but influential article by Leo Treitler comes to mind:
“The Present as History”, in Music and the Historical Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, Ch. 5, pp. 95-157.