Friday, November 20, 2009

On Whale Song: Why Ecomusicology now?

Over last weekend, I attended AMS Philly, my first foray into the strange and wonderful world of musoids (following the fact that my adviser calls ethnomusicologists "ethnoids"). In an evening session, the Logans session room was packed to capacity for a strange panel entitled "Why Ecomusicology Now", a spin-off from the musicology ecocriticism discussion group. The panel itself was a hodgepodge polyphony of intellectuals, composers and musico-activists, all somehow tangentially invested in what they fell should fall under the rubric of "ecomusicology". Crudely, Ecomusicology is Ecocriticism + Musicology, a broad based examination of how the "natural world" is plumbed for musical purposes. As one might already expect, critical and theoretical perspectives were hardly homogeneous, and one of the panel's main goals was to attempt to articulate some form of direction for the future of ecomusicology. Hence the title: "Why Ecomusicology Now?" - doubly fraught with the need to promote so-called "ecomusicology" in the 21st Century with all its political activist resonances, and, as a corollary of that aim, the desire to organize and self-define. However, by the end of the session, I was still puzzled and more than a little disturbed. Mitchell Morris' lovely keynote ended with a strange appeal for the diverse messiness that ecomusicology - an interdisciplinary space still unburdened by overdetermined forms of reproduction - should precisely remain that way, in order to generate more creative encounters with its supposed object(s) of study.

This, of course, however, came into direct contradiction with the earlier stated goals of the ecomusicological project, which is to organize, to discipline, to define. At the end of the session, I was tempted to stand up and recapitulate: "So... WHY Ecomusicology NOW?" The question remains unanswered, and should - what's the point about arguing over something that everyone agrees about? This is not the issue. As professional, critically-oriented musicologists with a responsibility to illuminating the wondrous capacities of music as well as scrupulously analyzing the contingent assumptions that enables it to flourish, should we really direct our attention to seeking logistical security and well-defined parameters by which we may call "musicology" musicology? Should we be gazing at our navels, imagining phantasmic umbilical cords somehow linking scholars sitting in the same room? I think of Alvin Lucier's "I am sitting in a room", where the implicit contradictions of language games begin to melt away under musical multiplicity, leaving only the ghostly, sonorous echoes of dumb, amplified sound material resonating in space...

To illustrate my points by way of oblique analogy, here are three little (fictional) anecdotes:

1) A whale walks into a bar and says to the bar tender: "[insert long and funny whalesong here]". The other whale sitting at the bar says to the first whale: "dude, you're wasted!"

2) A few years ago, there was a television advertisement that used (abused?) whale song: the opening scene filmed entrepreneurial divers recording their encounters with the whales, the soundbytes traveling to the hands of a club deejay who, through his ingenious mobile device, directly downloads the song into his computer, and instantly plays the song as a scratch-track to hundreds of ravers pulsing in self-glorified ecstasy.

3) Another example of overly contrived for-the-whales marketing strategies:

So what's the point of this slight excursus? The need to answer the difficult question posed by Slavoj Zizek - under whose "gaze" does one operate, and what are the repercussions of such a gaze? Doolittle, the panel's composer, recalled an incident where she heard beautiful music, then only after scrounging the source, realized it was birdsong. For Doolittle, this encounter proved to her the weaknesses of the anthropological exclusivity to realms of music-making. I argue it does the exact obverse. By discovering birdsong was not "human" music in retrospect, it only goes to show that "human music" still serves as a yardstick from which to measure all music, human or nonhuman. It is the structural positioning of that sonic yardstick that assures the longevity of this sonorous symbolic universe of human music, admitting nonhuman music only as quasi mystical reverence of their likeness (not sameness!) to us. The whale joke operates precisely on the desettling of our expectations implicit in the nature of the discursive anticipations of the "joke" genre: we expect the whale to open its mouth and speak in human tongues. The joke is only "funny" when the whale falls short of our genre-specific expectations, we only "get-it" when the whale does not adhere to its humanized conventions we have already set up for it in the first place. That's what makes the joke funny, viz-a-viz its sudden disjunctive rupture of expectation (also see Freud on the joke).

The point of this is that we should not rush too quickly into something we imagine to be oriented towards a righteously pious topic. Morris acknowledges this when he speaks of the problems of the "face" of endangered species, as well as the implicit inequalities between members of endangered species through the filter of the media. Some animal faces become more prominent than others. The Dodo, legendary for its supposed stupidity, is also legendary posthumously as an exemplar of the failure of conservation. Lest we forget, the Dodo and other creatures alike are likewise mute in the spheres of language we have forged for ourselves, ineffable in this strangely solipsistic game of human linguistics which may turn out to be no more than a stupid evolutionary mistake, a symptom of gross interactions beyond the human and animal, beyond the organic and the inorganic.

In the end, the call to ecomusicology "Now" looks like it hangs on a precarious self-righteous filament. Unable to answer properly the "Now", it befalls the "eco" to stir up resonances with ethical subjective participation. It's simply saying that you can have your cake and eat it too: "Since narratives are inherently political, let's not get wound up by our previous neuroses over fake objectivity, but let's be more properly political by choosing an object well reputed in other fields." That is to say, if we aren't careful, ecomusicology may end up sounding like a simple pat on the back: "not only can you be musicologists, you also can be ethical musicologists!", whatever that means.

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