Toward a New Organology: Material Culture and the Study of Musical Instruments

P. Allen Roda, Ph.D. candidate Music Dept., NYU
Organologists (those who study musical instruments) have generally focused on instrument design, classification, and the use of instruments in ‘traditional’ settings. In so doing, they have tended to take the relationship between humans and instruments for granted, rather than investigate the myriad ways in which this relationship is manifest in human – instrument encounters. This point of view lead Margaret Kartomi to assert that “musical instruments are fixed, static objects that cannot grow or adapt in themselves” (2001:305). In this overview, I adopt a point of view best expressed by Nicholas Thomas, that “objects are not what they were made to be, but what they have become” (1991:4).

Fig1.jpg Fig. 1:
golf club sheath or didjeridu?

I propose that by studying the intimacy of their sonic relationships, the physical experience of bodies interacting, and the cultural and intellectual knowledge that musical instruments embody and transfer; the musical instrument – human relationship could be a unique realm of analysis for a new organology that both draws from and contributes to an interdisciplinary approach to the human/non-human relationship. In order to understand the relationship between humans and musical instruments it will be necessary for organologists to use tools and methodologies from other disciplines such as the anthropology of material culture, actor network theory, and phenomenology.
The study of material culture has a long history in the social sciences dating back to what Germain Bazin (1967) has termed ‘the Museum Age’, a period starting in the 19th Century, in which the material artifacts of a given society were organized and displayed for the purpose of showing the social evolution of primitives en route to European Civilization. Distance in space was conflated with distance in time as ‘foreign’ or ‘primitive’ items were presented as emblematic of Europe’s past (Miller 1987). Later anthropological studies focused on the role of material objects in exchange and exchange itself as the foundation of social relationships. Building upon these works, anthropologists and sociologists began to think of about the role of material objects in post-industrial society – a role that many see as constituted by consumption.
Daniel Miller defines consumption as work which “translates the object from an alienable to an inalienable condition; that is from being a symbol of estrangement and price value to being an artefact invested with particular inseparable connotations” (Miller 1987:190). For Miller, consumption is a productive process of cultural, social and self creation. He refuses to let the consumer be reduced to the status of the commodity. Drawing upon Hegel’s notion of ‘objectification’ as the process through which subjects and objects are mutually constituted, Miller concludes that our very self awareness is dependent upon our ability as subjects to interact with the external world. Neither subject nor object exists independently; subsequently neither should be analyzed independently.
This strategy for analysis has been adopted by a branch of sociology called Actor Network Theory which has pointed out that all encounters between humans, between non-humans, or between humans and non-humans are mediated by social relationships (Latour 2005). The internet, our computers, and the social history of their production all mediate my relationship with you as readers as well as our more abstract joint interest in material culture. Rather than focus on the actor, whether it be human or non-human, Actor Network Theory argues for a focus on the network of relations that are forged between various actors in social interaction. According to this logic, organologists would cease to study musical instruments at all as it would be impossible to isolate ‘the instrument itself’ from any social encounter. Though I support this line of reasoning, I do not wish to discredit the valuable organological research undertaken through more traditional methods.

Fig. 2:
author playing his DIY didjeridu

Now I would like to draw your attention to Figures 1 and 2. Once I learned from Dennis Havlena’s web site (Havlena 2007) that ‘ready made didgeridoos’ were for sale at Kmart for 97 cents in the sporting goods department where they are called ‘golf club sheaths’, I set out immediately to find one – and indeed found one in my late grandfather’s set of golf clubs in my parents’ basement. Now it is a didjeridu. Listen to a sound sample by:
Download file
I want you to think about the significance of this event. What does it mean for me, a white male representative of the Academy to proclaim ‘this is a didjeridu’. What power relationships are being enacted? Who agrees or not with my proclamation? Who might contest my authority to define didjeridus in this fashion? How did this object and I come to relate to each other in this particular way? Why do I not call it a mini-alphorn, a lur, or von Hornbostel-Sachs? If I leave this on a train accidentally and someone else finds it, what will it be for them? How might it affect them? How might it change if I ceremoniously present it to a future grandchild or encase it in glass at a prestigious institution? As I briefly review the various complex and overlapping relationships between musical instruments and humans which can be: sonic, commercial, physical, and/or museological – that is to say mediated by practices of classification and display.
The Sonic Relationship – Listening
In general, musical instruments are primarily dedicated to producing or modifying sound – a characteristic which separates them from other entities that also make sound (such as alarm clocks, refrigerators and medical equipment). This distinction is created primarily by the intimacy of the sonic relationship between musical instruments and humans. One example is didjeridu healing as practiced in various ‘new age’ communities around the world in which the sound of the instrument is thought to ‘envelop’ or ‘open’ the patient. Some patients believe that the sound waves emitted by the instrument penetrate their body and align their energy centers to facilitate healing. In describing his practice, Hans Schuldheiss says, “The didgeridoo creates a sound bubble around the client, creating a sense of well-being and relaxation” (Ellis 2005). Perhaps for Schuldheiss and his patients, the golf club sheath is a piece of medical equipment. For me, it’s a musical instrument; for my grandfather it was a golf club sheath; for the Federal Transit Authority it is a potential weapon. What something ‘is’ depends on our relationship with it.
Drawing on extensive studies of the relation of music to language, Steven Feld and Aaron Fox demonstrate that music, even instrumental music, can convey emotion and has communicative capabilities (Feld & Fox 1994). Roman Jakobson’s ‘Poetics’ articulates numerous ways in which we can communicate information without the use of referential speech, many of which are found in music (Jakosbson 1995). The sound of musical instruments can make people laugh, cry, scream – or even surrender (Cusick 2007).
Don Ihde writes of the ‘voices of objects’, claiming that the sounds different objects make reveal something about their material nature, their interiority, and the space in which they make sound. He rightfully points out that most objects do not make sound on their own, but in duets or complex polyphonies – that is to say that it is not just the sound of the drum skin that we hear but also that of the stick or the hand and the room in which we are present (Ihde 1986).
The sound of musical instruments reveals more than just their physical characteristics and their relationship with acoustic space, however. In describing the inseparability of hearing from listening, David Sudnow (1979) points out that the human mind makes associations and judgments at the moment of perception. We do not hear in the same way that tape recorders do, though sometimes we imagine that we do. Subsequently, the sounds of musical instruments also invoke a variety of connections in the ears/minds of the listeners. These connections are related to each listener’s familiarity or lack thereof with the sound of any given musical instrument.
These sounds are frequently connected to particular places or cultures in the ears of listeners. Max Peter Bauman lists 59 instruments which are commonly thought to be ‘national icons’ (Baumann 2000). I would argue that all instruments invoke some sense of cultural significance whether it is related to a specific region, a national identity, or simply a sense of Otherness. I like to think of them as sonic ambassadors. For example, musical instruments are frequently brought home by tourists in an attempt to sonically invoke their tourist destination. Some work on the global trade in tourist art exists, though it focuses primarily on visual art and the tourist ‘gaze’ (Urry 2002). Perhaps future work in organology could present a study of the tourist ‘ear’.
The flow of musical instruments as commodities of international trade has significant theoretical ramifications for organologists, because it helps to articulate the various types of human relationships these instruments have as they encounter different individuals over the course of what has been termed their ‘social life’. For instance, Igor Kopytoff (1986) writes of the process through which objects (specifically slaves) transform to become commodities. These changes do not occur instantly, or overnight, but are part of a process that is to be understood as dynamic, in flux, and intangible. This work could serve as a model for organological investigations into the way in which musical instruments enter the marketplace, especially when combined with Miller’s theory of consumption. An example of this type of research is Sean Murray’s paper on pianos and the 19th Century Ivory trade (Murray 2007).

The Physical Relationship – Performance, Practice and Discipline
Perhaps the most complex way in which musical instruments interact with humans is through the intimacy of musical performance and practice. Some might argue that the relation is so intimate that the distinction human and instrument is dissolved. In describing the way in which he communicates via the piano, David Sudnow (1979) describes it as an extension of himself – another medium he uses for sonic expression beyond that of his vocal cords. When I think of playing the didjeridu and the way in which the instrument alters and amplifies the buzzing of lips and the continuous column of breath flowing out of its orifice, it seems appropriate to think of the instrument as an extension of the player, rather than a separate entity. Scholars in many fields have found examples of intimate human/non-human interactions that blur the distinction between person and thing such as: Robert Plant Armstrong’s “works of affecting presence” which are objects that “own certain characteristics that cause them to be treated more like persons than like things” (Armstrong 1981:5); the Marx’s analysis of workers as human extensions of the machines they operate; ethnographies of the South Pacific in which ritual artifacts called Malangan are treated as part of the human life cycle (Küchler 1987. 1988); the increased usage of machines to replace internal organs in modern medicine; and various theorizations of online behavior as ‘post human’ (Haraway 1991). These types of cyborg analyses might prove useful in organologies of performance.
The relationship between player and instrument is so intimate that both are physically altered in the process – a topic that has sparked debate in organology with reference to methods of collections conservation (Fisher 2007), but needs to be addressed with regard to the effects instruments have on players. Learning to play a musical instrument shapes the player’s body through the development of certain types of dexterity and the strengthening of particular muscles in a way that resembles the active relationship humans have with sports equipment as opposed to the passive bodily shaping of desk chairs. Often, however, there is more to learning than just going through the motions: for example, in learning to play golf, one’s arms strengthen while learning how to swing a club, yet at the same time one also learns to embody ‘appropriate’ behaviors on the golf course. Similarly, when learning to play the piano, one learns to identify oneself with the culture of that repertoire whether it be Scott Joplin, Mozart, or church hymns. However, one also learns the fundamentals of music theory, chord progressions and cadences, major scales and the spatial orientation of intervals. The same could be said for any theory of music with regard to any instrument. Learning to play a musical instrument involves learning about the relationship between sounds in time. It impacts the student physically, culturally, and intellectually and creates a truly unique human/non-human relationship.
When learning to play musical instruments of different cultures, frequently players begin to identify themselves with romanticized notions of that instrument’s culture of origin as the those origins get filtered through the player’s individual experience. Yet as players associate themselves with the instrument and its culture, the instrument gets associated with the players and their culture. Through a slow, gradual process, the didjeridu can be transformed from an ‘Aboriginal instrument’ to a ‘hippy new age instrument’. Its connection to Aboriginal Australia gets blurred by numerous connections to both specific and generic tropes of Otherness such as: yoga, Eastern meditation and mysticism, chakras, crystals, African drumming, and Native American shamanism. The didjeridu will always index Australia, but that index gets subsumed by an index of ‘hippy new-age culture’ which consists of various appropriations of Otherness and recontextualizations of material culture (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: Tribal Soundz Store on 6th Street in NYC
The process of recontextualization does not occur silently, however, but through discourse, and control over discourse is power (Baumann & Briggs 1992, Chakrabarty 2000). Those who have the power to (re)contextualize musical instruments control this transformative process. Indigenous people do not control the main channels of discourse – academia, media, and commerce. Subsequently, they are unable to pigeonhole the European Diaspora into their own imagined stereotypes. Nevertheless, indigenous peoples are able to transform the musical instruments they appropriate from western society.
According to David Samuels (2004) in his ethnography of the Western Apache, electric guitars were not only signs of resistance (in this case resistance against being frozen in time by ‘traditional’ ideas of what it means to be Apache), but they were also symbols of status and coveted commodities associated with successful Anglo-American bands. The concept of the Apache themselves as a fixed identity, already recognized as problematic by Samuels and others, is no less problematic than the concept of the electric guitar as a fixed identity. According to Samuels, the Apache with whom he worked appropriated the electric guitar as a sign of resistance, as well as an icon of the material wealth of the West or a romanticized notion of that material wealth. Romanticized notions of a musical instrument’s culture of origin accompany it to new contexts regardless of whether the flow of instruments is moving from the Rest to the West or in the opposite direction.
The Museological Relationship – Classification and Display
Classifying musical instruments is an exercise of power through control over discourse. Despite Kartomi’s call for increased awareness of indigenous instrument classification systems, organologists still refer to the kora as a ‘harped lute’ or a ‘lute harp’ defining it in European terms and forging a relationship between instruments that have no historical connection. The power of classificatory discourse is most obvious when non-western scholars use European instruments to define musical instruments from their own country (Cavour-Aramayo 2003). As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues, there could be no ‘ethnographic objects’ without ethnographers (1998). Writing ethnography is also a performance of power.
James Clifford (Clifford 1988) points out that displaying objects as emblematic of a group of people has a tendency to ‘concretize’ them, to freeze them in the time and place in which those objects were made. In my opinion, and that of Actor Network Theorists, not only do the people get frozen in time through their association with this particular instrument, but the instrument is frozen in time through its association with a particular group of people. By constantly reminding the public that the accordion is a European instrument, museums are actively erasing the way in which the instrument has been transformed by other groups of people throughout the world and subsequently placing value judgments on those transformations as being somehow ‘less authentic’ than the instrument’s cultural origins.
A similar argument could be made for the didjeridu, through its transformation in the hands of the European Diaspora. Questions that should be more seriously addressed by musical instrument museums are: how does the act of display change the human – instrument relationship? How do display practices reinforce ideologies that further distinctions between us and them with the inherent value judgments that accompany those distinctions? To listen to a bamboo didjeridu:
Download file
Returning now to my natural end-blown lip vibrated straight plastic aerophone with an integral mouthpiece – or golf club sheath, whatever you want to call it; I want to ask you, what types of questions will lead us towards an understanding of this object in relation to the people who encounter it? By reframing, if only temporarily, organology’s minimal unit of analysis to the relationship between the musical instrument and one or more humans, what types of research methodologies will help us advance a social understanding of musical instruments that does not merely freeze them in time and space as part of some cultural practice unique to the objects’ place of origin but allows them to be dynamic agents forging multiple distinct social relationships over the course of their existence?
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