Faculty Focus: The Peoples’ Music
Jon McCollum, chair of the Department of Music and director of the College’s minor in ethnomusicology, will co-edit a new book series focusing on historical ethnomusicology around the globe.
It may seem self-evident that history plays a role in the study of ethnomusicology, which Jon McCollum defines as “the study of music as or in culture.” But in terms of scholarship, that’s not quite so clear.
“Ethnomusicology typically focuses on ethnography, a description of the immediate event, what’s going on right now,” says McCollum, chair and associate professor of music, and the director of the College’s minor in ethnomusicology. “In recent decades, ethnomusicology has increasingly emphasized ethnographic studies of contemporary musical practices, to the neglect of historical analysis. Much of my own work has fallen into this category as well. I am fully engaged in ethnographic work, but the past calls me.
“We typically think about the study of history and music as being the realm for historical musicologists. This is an oversimplification, but generally speaking, historical musicology focuses primarily on the Western canon—Beethoven, Brahms. But there’s a lot of history from other music cultures that is waiting to be unearthed. And so, it’s for this reason that historical ethnomusicology has become a serious interest of mine.”
As a leading international scholar on historical ethnomusicology, McCollum makes no assumptions about how we should define and recognize the role of history and culture in the evolution of music. His well-received book Theory and Method in Historical Ethnomusicology, co-edited with David G. Hebert, professor of music at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Bergen, Norway, “is the first of its kind to actually focus solely on how we rethink histories, how we rethink philosophies. It’s reconsidering past notions of music, even things we assume are truths.”
The success of the book, published in 2014 and freshly reissued in paperback, prompted the publisher, Lexington Books, to tap McCollum and Hebert to be editors on a new series exploring the discipline worldwide. Called Deep Soundings: The Lexington Series in Historical Ethnomusicology, the series will be the first of its kind to probe the role of historical musical culture accessing everything from oral histories and traditions to translated scholarship from other languages, countries, and cultures.
McCollum, whose dissertation focused on the music and ritual of the Armenian Apostolic Church, speaks Armenian, Japanese, and German, and he reads French, in his words, “badly!” In addition to his teaching at Washington College, he’s a Senior Research Fellow with the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts, and has been a consultant for the Smithsonian Institution and Folkways Alive! at the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta.
While his “Western” instrument is trombone, he is an accomplished performer on the Japanese shakuhachi, where he holds a Master’s license and a natori, a honorific performance name. He also plays the Japanese koto and shamisen. He credits learning such instruments and the study of world music with prompting him to examine “other things that don’t fit within” Western parameters.
“Music exists in time, but it is not contained in a vacuum,” he says. Mozart, for example, was influenced by the sounds and instruments of Turkish Janissary bands. “This challenges the assumptions of Western hegemony in the canon,” he says, “and it impacts how we teach.”
The new series attempts to find those voices who until now have not been highlighted or included in the scholarship of ethnomusicology, including oral traditions and scholars from other languages. China, Russia, and Latin America, McCollum says, are just a few examples of places where study in this field has been ongoing for decades, but not brought into the realm of Western scholarship on the subject. Prospective editorial board members for the series include scholars from India, Japan, China, Tanzania, Russia, Ireland, and the UK.
“It focuses on new discoveries in the social history of global peoples in terms of music,” he says. “Our perspective here is to look for books and authors who are really cutting edge in looking at how they probe music of the past. We’re championing innovative approaches to the study of history, how we use new technologies, even down to X-rays of musical instruments. There are so many things that are available now that weren’t available ten years ago, even five years ago.”
As one of the first titles in the series, McCollum and Hebert are collaborating on Archaeomusicology and the Discovery of Viking Music, a project that probes the role of archaeology in musical scholarship.
“We’re not the first ones to think about the concept of archaeomusicology, but we’re hoping to use new technologies and collaborate with scholars in the Nordic countries, where we’re going to be looking at Viking artifacts,” McCollum says. “We really don’t know a whole lot about their music.”
By its nature, he says, the series models the multidisciplinary, liberal arts perspective, drawing on history, languages, science, anthropology, and sociology. And, it will promote the Department of Music at Washington College to an international audience.
“It serves to highlight Washington College as not only a great teaching school, but a school where rigorous new perspectives on scholarship is coming out,” he says. “And that is exactly what we are trying to do.”