Music History as entertainment, or how ”When You Say Nothing At All” got the status of Early Music.
Professor Olle Edström's article in STM-Online is interesting, because it is in my opinion important that at least some scholars keep a distance from their subject, and through these kinds of texts, contribute personal experiences and knowledge, keeping the discussion about skepticism and self-critique alive. In another article by Professor Edström, ”Fragments”, from an issue of the magazine STM some years ago, I read his ”report from the front” — meaning not ”here are the latest results from the best scholars”, but ”here stands the battles, these are the weapons, here we must live or die”. I hope there are more Swedish musicologists who keep the questions around the subject's content, function and future open!
Then, what Eva Öhrström writes in the same latest issue of STM-Online, about our music teacher education's lack of music history — and not least the students' almost total lack of previous knowledge — is even more true for other categories of teachers' knowledge in and attitudes to music and music history. There is not just a question of which kind of music the education should focus on. There is a real question, if there ought to be expectations of any knowledge of music and music history at all! For example: in a Swedish school (where the pupils' ages were 10-12 years), I have seen a ”Middle Ages theme” show, with parents in the audience. Everything seemed to be well-researched and prepared — if a little misunderstood and tweaked — except the music part of the show, which by the pupils were announced (with no irony) as ”a typical Middle Age dance”. Followed from the speakers the theme song from the movie Notting Hill — ”You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All”. Surely a nice example of a popular song from the year A.D. 1999, and besides, the girls in class had contributed their own choreographical interpretation of it. But: nearly thousand years away from the period.
Some weeks earlier, I had been asked by the teachers if I, being a ”music expert” (in their words), could help them with material for the theme studies. I knew the students had access to both the early music CD's that I purchased for this occasion, and my selection of sheet music with easy songs and recorder arrangements from roughly the correct epoch. But they had simply chosen not to use this opportunity – neither did they try to study it on their own, nor to ask me for help. The result was they took the easy road and chose a well-known tune which felt good for dancing. I hope nobody was fooled into thinking this was authentic medieval music. But you never know. At the start of the term the Head Mistress presented this school years ”Composer of the year” — the music which is chosen for a school years' morning meetings and as background music for math classes (Mozart effect, anyone?) — as the 1000 year old Gregorian church music. Guess which ”Gregorian” CD she played for the audience?
Maybe it had been best if I had said nothing at all about my education in music history. At least I said nothing at all — in an attempt not to hurt anyone's feelings — about my thoughts at the show. Though, the disrespect for facts and knowledge this ordinary and very nice Swedish school showed in a presentation of a historical theme, would surely not pass as harmless entertainment before quiet and content parents, had it concerned a misinterpreted piece of knowledge in an account of a religious beliefs or social studies subject. For example, if the pupils had been allowed to show a ”Christmas ham” (a traditional Swedish Christmas dish), saying this was a typical Arab meal, or, were allowed to explain the Christian Democrat party's ideology as origining from the former Soviet Union? Now this was ”only” history and music. Both are examples of relatively useless subjects. Music is something that can count as pure entertainment. Nothing you need to be serious about or have any knowledge of. Or is it?
The problem with music historiography and the other musical study subjects is largely that so many elementary school pupils, music teacher students, and indeed anyone — by their own free will, curiosity or desire — situated near the flow of media products and information, really doesn't own the tools which are needed to build a strong and historically grounded knowledge about the human world from scattered cultural and scientifical wreckage. It does not matter how the college teachers and music professors choose and reject among the music histories to fill their courses with subject content. From post modern fragments with ethnic spices you can't cook a nourishing knowledge soup. It becomes nothing more than fast facts in, and drivel out. Those who don't have history as their foundation and reference in their musical studies — both in playing and in purely educational situations — too easily find themselves out on that quagmire of floating interpretations and lost credibility, where their own tastes and the contingencies of the zeitgeist lead the way, to terrible effect. Applying this reasoning to the education of music teachers and to undergraduate education in musicology, it is very hard to compile a music history slanted to contemporary culture (=pop and rock music), because in that there is an overflow of information and a lack of distance which takes a certain experience to handle. In my opinion, you cheat the students of something important, if you allow them to study only stuff they are already familiar with, uncritical and without historical perspective.
Some time ago I read Alan Sokal, whose critique of, among others, Bruno Latour Professor Edström mentioned. I have not read the article by Sokal that Edström is referring to, but a book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont — their clearly thought out and part quite amusing attack on (natural) science abusers, Fashionable Nonsense. Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (Picador, New York 1998). Sadly I have not read Latour in original, but assuming from what Sokal/Bricmont is referring there seems to be better philosophers to turn to when discussing how to bridge the gap between ”the two cultures”, or how to explore a scientific philosophy which takes into consideration both Nature and Culture. (Regarding ”Science Wars”, see Norman Levitt's critique)
This is a discussion and an attitude I have long been interested in, but never really knew if it is worth the effort trying to address it directly. Nonetheless, we must considerate the education system, which early on sorts talents and interests between two or three well-separated streams. This leads in turn to a dearth of people knowledgeable in more than one scientific or artistic field, people who can talk to each other without misunderstandings and confusion of terms and language. Bridging the gap between specialties becomes nothing but a pious hope for good effects from the exchange of ideas and experiences. Sometimes that hope leads to research money to some group of scholars. Sometimes people with this attitude start new journals; for example the British Prometheus. But seldom does anything material change in our view of knowledge and reality. All talk which doesn't lead to useful results becomes in the worst case just another new form of entertainment, which confirms the public prejudices about scholars out of touch with reality. What is useful in music research, then? If there is some kind of eternal good or use in musicology, music history and musical knowledge, I do not think this good grows best in an interdisciplinary soil, but should be sought on classical ground: where a humanist Academia lays the foundation of general education, civilization and personal growth. That is where we musicologists have something to contribute to interested natural scientists and technicians. In return we can get their help with researching the physical world's conditions for music — the biology, acoustics, instrumental and recording technology; all the measureable and concrete stuff. There are surely no good reasons to strive to make music research into an exact science — however tempting it can be to get part of the mathematically based natural and social sciences status in society. All this has been said before, but need to be reiterated in every debate about the future of the humanities!
© Maria Ljungdahl 2001 (English translation 2003, with kind help from Dr. Michael W. Morse, Toronto)