Tradition and Function, Fulfilment, and Dreams

I’m at an important junction where I no longer have to concentrate solely on western music. If you know me, you know I’ve been waiting for this to happen now for years.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate and acknowledge the function of European and American music – I’m completely immersed in it. I just want to explore musics’ function in other cultures, in traditions and ceremony, political function, spiritual function – everything I haven’t been able to do as of yet.

I wish I could just absorb it all – every sound made in every village of the world. I can’t.

One of the hardest things about going into a field like ethnomusicology is knowing that while you strive to know as much as you can, you can really only expect to “master” one or two musical cultures in a lifetime. I have a leg up on the music of New Orleans, which gives me insight into the music of Haiti, St. Croix, and others. I have a leg up on the musical traditions of New England, which relate directly to the traditions of the UK. I can outline European art music – its timeline, its genres, compositions, major ensembles and conductors, compositional styles and form transitions, its political impact in some cases…I’m in no way proficient or even a scholar in European or American music, yet I know enough to apply it to other areas, perform works with compositional integrity, or teach it… and now I have to consider what’s next.

I can spend my life continuing to survey the sounds of the earth, or I can delve into something that interests me and spend the next twenty years trying to decipher it. The academic opportunities I have right now will allow me to do the latter, or I can continue to teach as I have been and just continue to pick up bits and pieces that will allow me to survey the globe. It’s a big decision to make. Do I take a risk, or stay comfortable?

Do I want to spend my life unraveling traditions? In today’s world, how does tradition help us if it does not move us forward? Yet European art music is tradition also. Nevertheless, if I spend twenty years researching traditions, who will it benefit? The traditions in New Orleans are kept in tact largely because of tourist expectation – as a result, in so many ways the city hasn’t moved forward. If I spend ten years studying the sounds of the Tibetan people, what will I discover? The culture is slowly being erased by the Han, and seemingly only kept alive (again) to reiterate a unique culture that would be lost if the Han were to get their way. What purpose does its “music” serve right now at this moment? Spiritual? Political? I’m not sure.

I’m very interested in the earlier Bon traditions of Tibet – its dark and shamanistic at best, with a cacophonous musical subtext that aids in oracles, magic, deities, and spiritual gains. While I’ve read about it, I wouldn’t even know if anyone alive in Dharamsala (or if I ever get there, Lhasa) would even have answers enough to make scholarly inquiry. And again – that tradition is gone. What is the benefit of archiving it if it does not help us move forward? Would I feel more fulfilled by teaching & swapping English/Tibetan lessons with young children in Dharamsala?…

The point is that my urge to be beneficial/constructive on the planet is stronger than my urge to study tradition for the sake of studying tradition. I need to find a way to integrate the two. I’m finally getting what I want, and I’m questioning my own goals.

I’m confident I can make a difference and accomplish both as an ethnomusicologist. That’s the plan. I’ve wanted this for too long to filter-think my way out of it.


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