A global project for the Music: Interview with Reinhard Strohm – 24.05.2017


Reinhard Strohm

2012 Balzan Prize for Musicology

For his extensive research on the history of European music within the cultural and socio-historical context from the late Middle Ages to the present, and for his detailed descriptions of vocal music, especially early sacred music in Flanders, and of the works of Vivaldi, Handel, and Wagner.

Professor Strohm, the fourteenth and last workshop entitled “Global Bach and Media Geography” held at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, concludes the research project “Towards a Global History of Music” that was funded by the Balzan Foundation and that you have been working on for nearly five years. Could you tell us about the content and the aims of your ambitious project?
The title of my research project is, in fact, “Towards a Global History of Music”, and it includes the concept of global history, which although not very widespread in musicology, is not really all that new. For historians, “global history” is organized into various departments and specialized branches of research. Instead, in the field of music, the idea of a global history of music only began to take hold in the 1970s. Of course, there was a forerunner in the period of the Enlightenment, the oft-cited Johann Gottfried Herder, who studied the music of other continents and other cultures.
Since then the tradition of ethnomusicology has long been consolidated. Until twenty or thirty years ago, the history of music and ethnomusicology developed along separate lines. Musical history concentrated on Europe and the Western world, while musicological ethnology focussed on the rest of the world, a state of affairs that could not last. We have thus made the attempt to combine the two disciplines, and the main objective of the research project was precisely that of in-depth study on the history of music outside the western hemisphere. It was not simply a matter of analysing the concept of global music, but rather of concentrating on the history of music on other continents. The question that we asked was whether it was possible to conduct research on music in Africa without complete written sources. We tried to do this by collaborating with many researchers and experts from many different countries and cultures.
For example, the historicity of Chinese music goes without saying – it is older than the history of European music. In traditional musical historiography, European music and new traditions have been seen as the end of a long historical process. That is to say, starting with the so-called primitive cultures, and moving on to the more advanced ancient civilizations, we arrive directly in modern Europe, as if Europe represented the logical consequence and climax of the whole of the history of music. This view is no longer sustainable. The word “towards” means that we can no longer entertain the thought that the history of music for the entire world can be written. We can only move in this direction. In any event, it is difficult. First of all because there is a great deal of material, and secondly, because we can no longer proceed with a Eurocentric outlook, dictating the rules by which others should write and explain their music history.
In the course of our research project, we had many discussions about the legitimacy of writing a global history of music, because not all cultures might recognize the importance of such an operation. Despite these doubts, a firm belief in the necessity of undertaking research on the musical cultures of the world finally won out. It is only a beginning, and the results of our research remain open.

Now your research work has drawn to a close. Do you foresee publications of the content and results? Will there be a follow-up to your work?
The structure of the project called for the collaboration of mid-career researchers who thus financed part of their research trips. For the most part, the workshops were organized and implemented by these young researchers. Through these fourteen workshops and the studies of the so-called research visitors, a great deal of material has come to light. In the course of the entire project, 160 papers were given and 23 young researchers obtained fellowships to carry out targeted research. Moreover, we recorded the debates that arose at the end of these papers. At present, we are examining and sifting through the material we have collected. Not all of it can be published, either because some of the speakers will publish their work elsewhere, or because we did not accept some of the speakers. In the end, 60 papers and smaller works were selected in addition to the work directly commissioned from the young researchers. These last works will not be published, but will be handed over to the Balzan Foundation, which – upon authorization from the authors – will make them available for scientific purposes to whoever requests them. The rest of the material will be published both in paper copies as well as in digital form, as e-books.
The first volume is already in the printing phase at Taylor & Francis in London, a publishing house with long experience with scientific texts, also in the field of musicology. This first volume contains the first two years of work on our research project, which mainly concentrated on the history of music in the modern era – from the eighteenth to the twentieth century – in Europe and in Eastern and Southern Asia.
In the Proceedings of the British Academy, I would like to publish two more volumes focussing on individual aspects of our research. In collaboration with the Oxford Research Archive, finally, we would like to put online the papers, research work and reports that will not be published in paper copies and that normally would not enter into scientific circuits.

Which experiences most deeply impressed you during the research project?
I learned so many things that I previously knew little or nothing about. Something that made a particularly strong impression on me was the incredible variety of situations in the history of music in the respective continents. Some of our workshops carried out comparative research. In one of these, the work of Catholic missionaries from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in South America and Eastern Asia was compared. For the most part, the missionaries were Jesuits and Franciscans from Europe. They discovered entirely different cultures and had to adapt. For example, missionaries at work in China first had to obtain the Emperor’s authorization in order to work and move around freely in the court. Instead, in South America they settled directly in the jungle without having to ask anyone for permission. Finally, in Africa, the situation differed so greatly that it is almost impossible to speak of a single “history of African music”. Unlike in South American, Eastern Asian or Western countries, in Africa there are very few researchers and scientific networks with whom we were able to work. One of the priorities for continuing our work is to find suitable partners and intensify our collaboration with institutions in Africa and in the Arab world. In particular, in the Arab world there are many good researchers, part of whom are German or American musicologists at work there. The part composed of native researchers, however, often has a difficult time establishing contacts with foreign institutions.

To what extent, then, is it possible to speak of a global concept of music? Doesn’t the meaning of the word “music” differ greatly from one cultural area to another?
Music is also defined differently in different cultures. In the Arab-Muslim world, the word “music” only stands for music theory and instrumental music. Everything that we define as music – practice, playing music, singing – is given a wider meaning, and also includes poetry, dance and religious rites. In Arab lands, all of this often remains in the shadow of Islamic doctrine. Within religious dogma, the concept of music is placed at a disadvantage, so to speak. On the other hand, Arab musicians understand their work as more all-encompassing than most Western musicians. The concept of music is more diversified but at the same time more subordinate to the ethical-religious order than in other countries.
In indigenous American cultures, there are completely different notions of music and practice. Here, traditional rites strongly impact the concept of music. Pure, absolute music like concert music obviously exists in other cultures, and it is erroneous to think that it exists only in European countries. For example, in Eastern Asia there were already forms of concert music thousands of years ago. Some scholars, including Jürgen Habermas, have maintained that the concert as a pure form of musical performance was born in Europe in the eighteenth century. Concerts as purely musical events, however, already existed in ancient Greece.
In the Western world of concert music, we have long tended to lump together everything that has been traditionally associated with the name of music. We have a ritualistic “crossover” tendency to combine theatre and dance music with music. Musical practices in Europe are thus drawn closer to the cultures of other countries. This is the so-called process of hybridization.

Which was stronger, the influence of the Western world on music of other countries or vice versa?
It is impossible to pronounce a definitive verdict, because different periods vary a great deal with respect to each other. Let’s concentrate on the modern era. In the age of colonialism, in a span of about 250 years, there was a vast expansion of European forms and cultural traditions in the world. After the disintegration of colonialism – in the so-called postcolonial modern era – the ex-colonies initially freed themselves of the cultural dominance of the European powers, but in many cases the entanglement of different cultures survived. For example, today no one can claim that cultivating the work of Johann Sebastian Bach in Japan is a gift from Europe. Bach has long become an integral part of Japanese culture. My colleague Nicholas Cook maintains that in the countries of Eastern Asia, the musical heritage of the West is industriously fostered. Tobias Klein, one of our fellows in Berlin, has published a contribution entitled “Bach in Africa”, in which he shows that in Ghana, the study and interpretation of Bach’s chorales and sacred music has followed a route of its own for two hundred years. Thus it is not true that the whole world awaits what happens in Europe with Bach’s music. Many countries have developed their own interpretations of his music. The transfer and diffusion of certain cultural traditions obviously took place, but no one can ever predict what will happen when trends have already spread around. In South America, too, Johann Sebastian Bach is now part of the country’s own historical and cultural heritage.

What time frame does your research project cover?
Originally we thought about beginning around 300 A.D. At a workshop held in Oxford the previous year, a paper on the Hellenistic period showed that there had been extraordinary global developments at that time. Early processes of globalization had also been observed in the course of the first millennium as well as in the Mongolian Empire in the Middle Ages. Another paper delivered at a workshop in Jerusalem compared musical developments in various imperial systems. Comparisons were drawn between the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Soviet Union, regimes that partly dominated the same geographical area. The research came to the interesting conclusion that the dominating empires managed to politically impose their cultural influence only in part. Not everything that took place in Armenia or Palestine can be defined as Ottoman. For these countries, it is very important to discover the degree of influence that their own initiatives had in the past. One might ask if it is still necessary for scholars to go the British Museum to do so, or if it might not be possible to stay closer to home to learn something about their own cultures, carry out research or undertake initiatives.

Was there also a globalization of musical instruments – of the “hardware” so to speak?
Musical instruments belong to the material tradition and are among the oldest subjects studied in musicology. In the nineteenth century in Berlin, people had already begun to study and collect musical instruments. This is very important, and perhaps was not sufficiently incorporated in our project. A history of music without a history of musical instruments is not complete. How are the instruments of different world cultures related to each other? Were they the same instruments? Did they go from one city to other cities? Did the same types of instruments and music develop in different parts of the world without their coming into contact with each other? One of the leading European scholars of African music, Gerhard Kubik from Vienna, has put forward the thesis that a music instrument known in both Angola and in the Caribbean arrived in the islands through the slave trade. A younger group of researchers also took up this questions, but found that there was no basis for Kubik’s thesis. Perhaps these two instruments are actually unrelated, but developed independently of each other in their respective countries. These researchers observed Caribbean musicians in Angola, and brought local musicians together there. Their collaboration worked fine on a musical level.

How can such a mammoth task as your research project be realized?
The practical feasibility of a research project like this one is always utopian or speculative. Even in less wide-ranging research, it quickly becomes clear that an immense task is involved and that it will never come to an end. Personally, I have always drawn a great deal of satisfaction and inspiration in broadening my horizons. The Renaissance, Humanism in Europe, was always driven by this vision: What else is there that we can learn from? If someone really wants to know something, he or she must often concentrate on something small, which is why Area Studies are so popular at the moment. The combination of all of these concentrated research projects is an organizational challenge. It is a question of bringing together many researchers who truly know something about these details and getting them to work together and compare their results.

Where does musicology stand in today’s academic milieu?
The position of musicology is very different, even within Europe itself. In Italy there are five different institutes of higher learning with a musicology department: Bologna, Cremona, Turin, Palermo and Rome. Other countries are not so far advanced.
In Germany and the English-speaking countries, musicology is even more highly developed. A counter-example should be cited: the situation with theatre studies, which is much more is precarious. In the English-speaking countries there is very little.
When I came to England in 1975, there were very few musicology institutes here. In Germany they existed in almost every higher learning institution. Since then, musicology has become very widespread in England, too. The same is true for the United States and for Australia. But it is always the same countries that are involved. For that reason, I am trying to collect the addresses of experts in Africa, Asia and in Latin America with whom to collaborate in the future.
In the field of ethnology, there are many research projects, for example those of my French colleagues in West Africa, in the former French colonies. There is also a great deal of research to be done in music research in connection with ethnology.
Then there is Eastern Europe, where musicology has long been neglected. In Russia, perhaps not, but during the Soviet era there were preordained parameters. With the exception of Poland, there were few musicologists doing research in the rest of Eastern Europe. Our task is to support our colleagues in Eastern Europe and initiate discussion.

Walter Rauhe

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