Phenomenological Approaches in the History of Ethnomusicology
Abstract and Keywords
Beginning in the late 1970s, ethnomusicologists began to engage with ideas from phenomenology (a movement within continental European philosophy). This article discusses key concepts from phenomenology and explores how ethnomusicologists developed them to address fundamental issues in the study of music and culture—the problem of musical meaning and musical interpretation, the nature of the performance event, and questions of music and being. Tracing the intellectual history of phenomenological ethnomusicology, the article synthesizes findings from research on a broad range of world areas and offers new insights into a variety of topics of interest to contemporary music scholars, including embodiment, self-reflexivity, flow and musical involvement, trance, time and temporality, and research methods. The article closes by discussing the explosion of phenomenological work in ethnomusicology that has occurred in the last seven years and suggests new directions for research, including ethnomusicological inquiry into the politics of music.
Founded at the turn of the twentieth century, phenomenology is a tradition of continental European philosophy that has had a profound impact on the humanities and social sciences. The movement has a deep historical relationship with the discipline of ethnomusicology; not only did the nineteenth-century German philosopher Carl Stumpf serve as the habilitation supervisor for the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (Fisette 2009), but Stumpf and others in his milieu were also among the parents of comparative musicology, the precursor to today’s field of ethnomusicology (Stone 2008, 169–70). Despite these related origins, it was only in the last two decades of the twentieth century that ideas from phenomenology were engaged by ethnomusicologists in a substantive way. The body of work that has emerged in this area is diverse. Ethnomusicologists have drawn on differing branches of the phenomenological tradition, interpreted ideas from that tradition in differing ways, and used them to investigate a wide range of topics—from the nature of the performance event to problems of meaning and being in music, and from issues of embodiment, flow states, trance, and time to basic questions about research methods and the goals of the ethnomusicological project. While phenomenological ethnomusicology has developed significant insights into questions of concern to music scholars, humanists, and humanistic social scientists more broadly, this literature is not as tightly synthesized as that of other intellectual orientations within ethnomusicology, in which a common body of founding works is universally cited and a tightly coordinated scholarly dialogue tracks an unambiguous intellectual trajectory. Despite the diversity within this body of work and the sometimes loose weave of its discursive threads, I argue that a systematic analysis of this scholarship reveals significant advances on a variety of fundamental topics in ethnomusicology, music studies, and the study of expressive culture in general—advances that only become evident from looking at the literature as a whole. Weaving those threads together more tightly and illuminating those advances is the aim of this article.
It is, of course, beyond the scope of the present work to provide an introduction to the phenomenological tradition in philosophy.1 But to understand phenomenological ethnomusicology, one must have at least a general idea of the character and project of the philosophical tradition, and providing that context is the first topic this article addresses.
Though phenomenology has many branches and its major thinkers disagree on a variety of important issues, a concern for lived experience is at the heart of much of this tradition. In Husserl’s thought, for example, phenomenology begins with a return to lived experience. As a first approximation, one might think of lived experience as the contents of consciousness: the feelings felt, thoughts thought, objects seen, memories recalled, and so forth. Such a conception might suggest that phenomenology is the study of the realm of the subjective and the individual, and in the field of psychology, as well as in more casual usage in the humanities and social sciences, the term is often used in just that way. But such a perspective runs counter to the phenomenological project, and a careful examination of the nature of experience is the starting place for any work that is based in phenomenology.
In Husserl’s view ( 1962), centuries of philosophical discourse about the relationship between appearance and reality have made it difficult for us to see lived experience for what it is. To correct for these distortions, we must place an epoché (set of brackets) around the question of whether any given experience is subjective or objective and make rigorous descriptions of the phenomena before us, unprejudiced by prior metaphysical presumptions. When we do this, Husserl argues, we make surprising discoveries. Taken strictly as experience, perceptual phenomena, for example, retain their objective quality. Consider my experience of the computer keyboard before me. At this moment, I see only the top surface of this object, while its back and sides are hidden from me. But if I attend to the experience itself in an unprejudiced manner, I discover that I am aware that the keyboard has a back and sides, facets of the thing that may become focal in future viewings. Taken strictly as experience, the keyboard retains its objective character as a mind-independent reality, and doing a phenomenology of my computer keyboard would mean exploring the modes through which the keyboard, strictly as experience, reveals itself to me as an objective reality. Expanding on this approach, we see that the phenomenological brackets are never to be removed. All experience is taken as experience per se, and Husserlian phenomenology seeks to answer the basic questions of philosophy and provide a grounding for the sciences, social sciences, and humanities by grounding all inquiry on rigorous descriptions of lived experience.
Seeing the subject as constitutive of the world, even in its objectivity, Husserl’s project is known as “transcendental phenomenology,” and it differs sharply from the existential phenomenologies of Martin Heidegger ( 1996), Maurice Merleau-Ponty ( 1962), and Jean-Paul Sartre ( 1948), who see the subject as thrown into a world beyond her making, both constituting and constituted by the world. The work of Heidegger, who was Husserl’s student, differs even more sharply from Husserl’s than that of Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, as Heidegger sees questions of experience as merely an entry point into more fundamental questions of being and the distinctive forms that human being-in-the-world takes. Heidegger also influenced Hans Georg Gadamer ( 2004) and Paul Ricoeur ( 1991, 2007), whose work brought new phenomenological perspectives to hermeneutics (the centuries-old Western tradition of textual interpretation) to gain fresh perspectives on questions of meaning and culture. Despite the sharp differences among these thinkers, all of this work opposes a representationalist view, which sees lived experience as a mere subjective epiphenomenon of a deeper reality that is, in principle, inaccessible to the subject.2
The relationship between the phenomenological project and the motivations and presumptions that have animated ethnomusicology is complex. Seeking to avoid ethnocentric approaches to music, most ethnomusicologists have seen their job as understanding the musical experiences of the people with whom they work, and evocative ethnographies of music and social life have been a staple of the field since at least the 1970s. Providing a rigorous philosophical grounding for the notion of experience, phenomenology would therefore seem to be well suited to the ethnomusicological project. But when ethnomusicologists first encounter phenomenologies of music by philosophers like Roman Ingarden ( 1989) or musicologist F. Joseph Smith (1979), storm clouds appear in what initially seemed like a sunny relationship. Ingarden, for example, is certainly interested in the experience of music, but he spends a substantial amount of effort arguing that musical works should be understood as “intentional objects,” and his phenomenological return to experience seems to depict musical meaning as inherent in the sound itself. Reifying compositions, projecting ideas from the Western conservatory about the autonomy of art into “the music itself,” and giving short shrift to both performance and situated context, Ingarden’s phenomenology seems to run counter to intuitions that are at the heart of contemporary ethnomusicology.3 There is no question that, from a contemporary ethnomusicological perspective, these are significant problems with Ingarden’s analysis; however, there are also significant insights here as well, and a deeper reading of his work will allow us to put the relationship between phenomenology and ethnomusicology on a proper footing.
Though Ingarden seeks a radical return to experience, he clearly essentializes what are only culturally specific intuitions, and his treatment of musical works as things akin to ideal objects runs counter to ethnomusicology’s emphasis on music as a fundamentally social phenomenon. But if we read Ingarden’s phenomenology as a musical autoethnography of listening in the Western conservatory tradition and listen more closely to his phenomenological descriptions, a very different situation emerges. At first blush, Ingarden seems to locate musical form and musical meaning in the sound itself, but a more careful attention to his method reveals that, for Ingarden, form and meaning depend not on the sound itself but on the person’s engagement with that sound—the process by which the person confronts music sound and constitutes it in her experience. While Ingarden fails to appreciate the profound ways in which our constitutive practices are shaped by cultural context, his work conceptualizes these practices and their embrace of music as his study object. This vision of study object—as both the music and the constitutive practices that bring it into experience—is at the heart of any richly phenomenological approach to our field. Without this kind of grounding, the scholar interested in understanding local perspectives on music may see musical form and musical meaning as constructs in the mind of the musician or listener. But listeners and musicians don’t create meanings in their minds, aren’t magicians on some psychological stage, making semiotic doves appear from puffs of smoke. On the contrary, musicians and listeners live in a public, social world of sounds and of other people, and we constitute our experience by engaging with the things of this world, bestowing sense but also opening ourselves to the contours and dimensions of the things we find here. While there are substantive differences among the ways in which ethnomusicologists have interpreted the phenomenological tradition, the thread that connects all of this work is an attention to constitutive processes; to forms of being in the world; to the social practices by which we as people engage with sounds, instruments, situations, and others, opening ourselves to the world that we find and making that world meaningful. As we explore the diverse ways in which ethnomusicologists have engaged phenomenology, this theme of constitutive processes will underlie our discussion.
Fundamental Orientations for Research: Meaning, Event, and Being in Phenomenological Ethnomusicology
The issue of meaning in music is an essential one for ethnomusicology, and it is here that phenomenological approaches to the field made their first contributions. For the phenomenological tradition, the word meaning does not merely point to the referential or denotative function of signs; on the contrary, in this context meaning is construed in a broad manner as a dimension of experience, and the interpretation of meaning is seen as a central component of the scholarly enterprise. Understood in this way, musical meaning includes the affective or stylistic valence that listeners or performers may find in music; processes of coordination and communication among participants in a performance event; the positioning of performances or works in terms of formal or generic systems; the negotiation of identity through music; and, in its widest sense, any ascription or discovery of significance in music or music making. Music is made meaningful not only in acts of composing, arranging, recording, performing, and listening, but also in discourses about music, from everyday talk to formal music criticism, and in every aspect of the music industry. The research on musical meaning in phenomenological ethnomusicology has developed from three starting places: Ruth Stone’s analysis of time, interaction, and performance, which is inspired by the writings of Husserl ( 1964), Alfred Schütz (1962, 1964; Schütz and Luckmann  1975), and the symbolic interactionists (e.g., Blumer 1969); Jeff Todd Titon’s (1988, 2008, 2009) and Tim Rice’s (1994, 2001, 2003, 2008) approaches to issues of interpretation in music, which are grounded in the writings of the hermeneutic phenomenologists; and Stephen Friedson’s Heideggerian inflection of the hermeneutic tradition, which is focused on questions of being in ritual and trance.
An ethnography of music making among the Kpelle of Liberia, Stone’s Let the Inside Be Sweet ( 2010) offers in its first few chapters nothing short of a thoroughgoing phenomenological reconstruction of the theoretical foundations of the discipline of ethnomusicology. Arguing against both musicological and anthropological visions of music research, Stone rejects the idea that either sound (as autonomous sonic form) or behavior (as the product of a cultural system) can account for the complex, lived reality of human music making. In contrast, she argues that ethnomusicologists must attend to the “dynamic, ongoing symbolic process in which participants—performer and audience—interpret the meaning of symbolic behavior” (8; original in italics). Understood in this way, ethnomusicologists can and should attend to sound and behavior, but these phenomena must be interpreted as the product of agents located in both situated and large-scale social contexts, ones who actively interpret the sonic, linguistic, and kinesic signs exchanged in performance. Stone takes the performance event as the indivisible unit of analysis, and her sensitive ethnography reveals how Kpelle performances are constituted by their participants through the interpretation and exchange of musical signs. More important, Stone shows how that exchange may itself be the focus of aesthetic experience in the local culture,4 and her analysis sketches out the first approach to a set of topics that have become central to phenomenological ethnomusicology—the nature of time in performance, the relationship of the situated event to larger social contexts, the interplay of musical and nonmusical expression in events, and the role of culture in performance. Articulated in a steady stream of books and articles (e.g., Stone and Stone 1981; Stone  2010, 1988, 2008; Stone-Macdonald and Stone 2013), Stone’s Schützian work has influenced generations of scholars, both those who self-consciously employ phenomenology, like myself (e.g., Berger 1999; Berger and Del Negro 2004; Berger 2010), and those who see the constitution of experience as their study object but do not use the formal theoretical apparatus of phenomenology in their research.
A second tradition in phenomenological ethnomusicology is grounded in the work of the hermeneutic phenomenologists, most prominently Gadamer and Ricoeur. The first development of this approach came in Steven Feld’s often cited article “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” ( 1994), which offers a systematic account of the various kinds of “interpretive moves” through which people make music meaningful. Though phenomenology is only one of the many streams of influence on Feld’s ideas here, his focus on music making and listening as interpretive processes makes this article an important starting point for hermeneutic ethnomusicology, and in later studies (e.g.,  1994, 1996) Feld went on to engage with ideas from phenomenology in highly productive ways. The first hermeneutic ethnomusicological ethnographies came in rich and weighty monographs by Jeff Todd Titon and Timothy Rice. In differing ways, Titon’s Powerhouse for God (1988) and Rice’s May It Fill Your Soul (1994) explore how persons emerge from a preexisting discursive history; come together to confront particular musical works, repertoires, or traditions; develop pre-reflexive understandings of music; and re-emerge changed by those social, interpretive experiences. (This iterative, dialogic process of meaning making is sometimes referred to as the “hermeneutic circle,” though that term has several differing uses in the field of philosophy.) The relationship between, on the one hand, the pre-reflexive meanings that are constituted in the person’s initial confrontation with a work and, on the other hand, any self-reflexive awareness that the person may later develop of her own interpretive processes, is taken up by Titon and Rice in different ways. A study of music, verbal art, and exegetic discourse in an Appalachian Baptist community, Powerhouse offers sophisticated insights into the interplay among the meanings of various genres of expressive culture (e.g., hymn, prayer, sermon, and life story), exegesis about those genres, and the unmarked experiences of everyday life. In May It Fill Your Soul (1994), an influential and multilayered ethnography of the politics and practice of Bulgarian music, Rice pays particular attention to the role of the body in hermeneutic processes, exploring how pre-reflexive embodied knowledge of music making resists incorporation into explicit pedagogy and examining the kinds of meanings that that know-how carries when a musician is able to assimilate it into her performance. Taking the ethnographies of Titon and Rice together highlights the fact that interpretive processes are not simply cognitive operations in the mind of an isolated subject but forms of social practice—actively achieved, shaped by both situated and large-scale social context, tied to the body, and dependent as much on social interaction as on the lone contemplation of great works. Many of these insights emerge in the analysis of particular ethnographic moments, and broader theoretical constructions of these ideas can be found in Titon’s and Rice’s chapters in the edited volume Shadows of the Field (2008), which I discuss further in the section on methodology below.
Titon’s and Rice’s ethnographies form the first generation of hermeneutic phenomenology in ethnomusicology, and a series of articles emerged in the wake of these works that extend their approach to investigate a wide variety of topics. Whether they are exploring the role of technological mediation in musical interaction (Porcello 1998), the interpretive dynamics that play out across the life course of a single musician (Harnish 2001), or the hermeneutics of memory (Conn 2012), the second generation hermeneutic ethnomusicologists see meaning making as grounded in the person’s cultural past, and they forward the broader ethnomusicological project of understanding what music means to the people who make it and listen to it (see also Catlin 1992; Simonett 2001; McIntosh 2006). A more radical recasting of the discipline’s goals can be found in the hermeneutic approach of Michael Bakan’s Music of Death and New Creation, a detailed study of Balinese gamelan beleganjur music (1999). While Bakan does not deny that interpretive practices are shaped by culture, he critiques ethnomusicology’s traditional emphasis on cultural difference and highlights the common interpretive dynamics that all subjects share when confronting a musical work or tradition. Like many ethnomusicological ethnographies, Bakan’s study provides a detailed, first-person account of the author’s attempts to learn an unfamiliar music, but Bakan rejects the typical ethnomusicological approach to music learning in the field, which had been to adhere strictly to the local style of musical pedagogy. Conceptualizing fieldwork as intercultural performance, Bakan collaborates with his teacher in forging a hybrid Western/Balinese gamelan pedagogy and treats his own unique learning experience as a legitimate object of study, rather than a means to reveal a reified “Balinese perspective.” In so doing, Bakan takes seriously Ricoeur’s claim that what the fieldworker and the research participant share is a common interpretive predicament: placing ourselves before a culture’s texts, confronting their complexities, internalizing their meanings, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by them. While Bakan’s approach has not displaced the traditional ethnographic aims in either phenomenological ethnomusicology or the field as a whole, his emphasis on the intercultural dynamics of interpretation has gained attention from a number of other scholars (e.g., Butler 2000; Noone 2013) and calls out for further inquiry.
While the problems of interpretation are important for the early Heidegger, his later work shifted away from hermeneutics (Ramberg and Gjesdal 2013), and throughout his career Heidegger felt that the Husserlian emphasis on experience should be subordinated to deeper questions of being. Taking Heidegger as a starting point, a third strand of phenomenological ethnomusicology sees the various forms that music making may take as culturally specific modes of being-in-the-world. The most fully developed ethnographic work in this tradition comes from Steven Friedson. Drawing on hermeneutics and hermeneutic ethnomusicology to supplement his primarily Heideggerian approach, Friedson’s Dancing Prophets (1996), a study of Tumbuka healing performance in Malawi, and Remains of Ritual (2009), which examines the Brekete/Gorovodu religion of the Ewe of southern Ghana, understand the ethnographic project as a process of participating in social interaction with one’s research participants to uncover their particular modes of being-in-the-world. Friedson does not reject the utility of traditional methods of descriptive ethnography, and his books recount the beliefs of the local religions, the typical practices of their rituals, and the tropes and structures of the music performed there. But for Friedson, this information is merely preparatory, a first step that allows him to take part in and understand the Dasein (literally, “there being”; roughly, the human way of being-in-the-world) of his research participants. Read through a Heideggerian lens, polyrhythm, which is a key feature of the music found in both of his field sites, is not merely a stylistic or aesthetic device but a way of being in time that opens up its practitioners to trance states and the (perceived) medical efficacy of the music.
At the turn of the 2010s, the work of Roger Savage and his colleagues offered significant extensions of the Heideggerian tradition. One part of Savage’s tightly argued and insightful book, Hermeneutics and Music Criticism (2010), brings ideas from phenomenology into conversation with those of John Blacking to suggest that what makes music distinctive is the ways in which its performance has the potential to carve stretches of time out of the mundane flow of everyday life and set them in their own ontological realm. Savage contrasts ethnographic case studies by Friedson (1996) and Jihad Racy (2003) to illustrate the culturally specific ways in which such time-out-of-time experiences are constituted. The articles in a special issue of the journal the World of Music, edited by Helena Simonett, extend Savage’s approach with ethnographic examples from around the world and reveal a range of new dynamics (e.g., Simonett 2009; Ho 2009; Kapchan 2009; see also Simonett 2014).
Differences of focus and intellectual apparatus separate Stone’s event-oriented approach, the Titon- and Rice-inspired hermeneutic ethnomusicology, and the Heideggerian inflection of hermeneutics found in the writings of Friedson. Nevertheless, all three strands of scholarship seek to deepen the ethnomusicological project by grounding research in the concrete realities of music making and music listening. The situation involves subtle ironies. While we ethnomusicologists—and indeed all music makers and listeners—are confronted every day with the experiential and praxial (i.e., practice-based) reality of our musical lives, that reality is also the site of our deepest ethnographic and philosophic conundrums. Finding a way to talk about that concrete reality leads us directly to problems of metaphysics and ontology that have historically been considered the domain of philosophy. What is the ontological status of the musical work? What occurs when we encounter such works, and how does meaning emerge in those encounters? What is the nature of human being in musical performance? The theoretical traditions of the social sciences that dominated ethnomusicology in the 1960s and 1970s—structural functionalism and structuralism—distracted scholars from these questions by treating practices of music making and music listening as secondary phenomena, the mere enactment of abstract sociocultural or cognitive systems. What phenomenology provides to the field of ethnomusicology is both a way of returning the focus of attention to the experiential and praxial reality of music and a set of intellectual tools for studying it (see Stone’s remarks in Stone and Berger 2014, 1, 4). This return to the concrete is no escape from context. As all phenomenological ethnomusicologists recognize, acts of music making and music listening are necessarily informed by the participants’ past interactions with others and oriented toward the possibility of future interactions. Understood in this way, “context” is not an abstract system (sociocultural, musico-cognitive, or otherwise) that produces experience; rather, context is the accumulation of past events sedimented in the person’s way of being in the world, a sedimentation that fundamentally informs, but does not determine, her present practice.5 Developing these insights with theoretical work and ethnographic or historical case studies, phenomenological ethnomusicology provides a distinctive set of insights into ethnomusicology’s traditional focus of research—music and culture.
The Body, Self-reflexivity, and Musical Involvement
If phenomenology has offered ethnomusicology a new approach to foundational issues of theory, it has also provided tools for studying a wide range of tightly focused topics and research questions. Chief among these are a cluster of interrelated questions that revolve around the issue of embodiment in music: What is the relationship between music structure and embodied practice? What significance does self-reflexive awareness (commonly referred to as “reflexivity”) have in performance? How are we to understand moments of intense involvement in music, and what roles do body and mind play here? Writing against long-standing biases in the Western conservatory that view musical works as nothing more than abstract sonic structures in time, phenomenological ethnomusicologists have argued that music is necessarily, rather than contingently, embodied and have explored the complex, culturally specific ways in which embodied practice is essential to even the most seemingly disembodied, formal qualities of music. The starting point for most of this research is Merleau-Ponty’s first major work, Phenomenology of Perception ( 1962), which critiques empiricist and rationalist traditions in philosophy to show how all elements of lived experience arise from the body’s primordial interactions with the world. Another phenomenological touchstone is Ways of the Hand (1978), a classic study by the sociologist and musician David Sudnow on the role of the body in jazz piano performance.
Greg Downey’s (2002) powerful research on capoeira (a Brazilian marshal art for which musical accompaniment is essential) illustrates some of the diverse ways that the body enters into music. Based on rich ethnographic descriptions of performance events and subtle discussions of timbre and rhythm in capoeira’s berimbau music, Downey shows how performers in the genre hear the berimbau parts, not as abstract structures of pitch and rhythm, but as expressions of the musician’s physical gestures, and his useful discussion illustrates the ways in which rhythms traffic freely between the musical phrases of the instrumentalists and the kicks and blocks of the fighters. Special attention is focused on the ways that those attending capoeira events mime the gestures of the berimbau player. Like the “air guitar” gestures so commonly performed by rock music fans, capoeira participants make sense of the music by articulating the physical gestures that create it; more important, their air berimbau gestures often play out rhythms that complement the sounded part, rather than just identically copying the physical gestures that the berimbau player is currently performing. Where a structuralist might see abstract sets of musical forms coordinated through some generative, transformational grammar, Downey’s discussion illustrates the fundamentally embodied nature of this music. Here, the body is not an output device for some underlying musical cognition; rather, it is the social and musical means by which music structure itself is created.
Matthew Rahaim’s research on the place of gesture in North Indian classical singing approaches related issues from a different angle (2012). Based on interviews, participant observation, and video recordings of lessons and performances, Rahaim analyzes the wide variety of gestures that vocalists produce while singing. Though some gestures are straightforwardly iconic, as when a singer’s hand motions trace the pitch contour of the melody, others are more complex, such as the gripping gesture that accompanies a melodic phrase at the conclusion of a rhythmic cycle or the circular gesture that accompanies oscillations of pitch. Rahaim’s point is that while Hindustani singers care deeply about sound, vocal melodies are more than a static ordering of pitches, as written transcriptions may imply. Singers also hear melody as motion through a pitch space, and for vocalists deeply involved in their work, that motion is experienced through multiple dimensions of embodiment—the unity of sound and proprioceptive awareness of the vocal apparatus that is the seat of vocal experience, but also gestures of the hands, arms, shoulders, and upper body. For Rahaim, we understand melodic motion because we are bodies that move in space, and musical motion and corporeal motion cannot be separated.6
Downey and Rahaim represent only two of the ways in which phenomenological ethnomusicologists have engaged issues of embodiment. As I noted previously, Rice has also explored the ways in which the musician’s pre-reflexive bodily engagement with her instrument may resist articulation in verbal exegesis (1994). Scholars like Louis Meintjes (2004), Jan Mrázek (2008), and Deborah Kapchan (2009, 2013) emphasize the role of embodiment in musical meaning, while studies by Judith Becker (2004), Martin Clayton (2008), and Clayton and Laura Leante (2013) combine ideas from phenomenology with contemporary work in cognitive science to get at issues of embodiment in music. The unity of the body is a theme that runs through much of this literature, and this unity is articulated along a number of dimensions. Forwarding ideas developed by Merleau-Ponty ( 1962) and philosopher Don Ihde (1976), Feld (1996), Downey (2002), Simonett (2014), Vanessa Thacker (2012), and Clayton (2008) emphasize that, in most cases, body subjects do not isolate the various sense modalities from one another. Rather, we draw on all of our sensory apparatus in a unified, systemic process, synthesizing sight, hearing, and tactile perception to bring the things of the world into lived experience. The same writers observe that the focus of our attention is less frequently on isolated sonic parameters (e.g., pitch, rhythm, or timbre) than it is on unified objects of perception. In capoeira, for example, event participants are less likely to hear the movement from one note to the next simply as a change in pitch than they are to experience that pitch change as the indication that the performer has pressed a coin against the instrument’s string; as Downey succinctly states, “The sound makes present the physical action that produces it” (2002, 496). And as the body is the site of culture and agency, it is also the site of ethics and politics. In differing ways, Rahaim (2012), Andy McGuiness (2013), and I (Berger 1999, 2010) show how the embodied practices of the performance event are shaped by larger social forces, oriented toward other copresent participants, and entail ethical or political valences.
In considering this research, it is worthwhile emphasizing that the dynamics of embodiment that the Phenomenology of Perception uncovered are profoundly dialectical. Here, Merleau-Ponty neither romanticizes those phenomena traditionally denigrated as merely biological (our appetites and passions) nor erases those phenomena traditionally lauded as mental (thinking and rationality) but shows how all elements of experience depend on our physical engagement with the world. I emphasize the dialectical character of these insights to highlight the fact that all talk of embodiment implies a thing separate from the immediate concrete actuality of the body; in other words, talk of embodiment implies that some “thing” is being embodied. As good dialecticians, we cannot see that thing as some immaterial essence, like a soul. On the contrary, the thing that is embodied is one possible deployment of our bodily and musical resources, which are framed by a penumbra of potentialities that were not brought into being. Thus, to articulate this gesture or play that phrase is also to have a structural awareness of other possible phrases in one’s cultural repertoire—gestures or phrases that are no less corporeal for being absent from the concreteness of the current moment. We might think of this as a kind of material systematicity or structural corporeality, an intimacy between the abstract organization of parts and the material elements thus organized. This is only one of the many dialectics of embodiment. In describing the music-making body as a paradoxical unity of material flesh and “evanescent,” dynamic form, Rahaim richly explores the temporal dimensions of this dialectic (2012, 87–90), and the topic is a deep one with significant implications for both ethnomusicology and philosophy. Understood in this way, the phenomenology of the body is less about repairing a Cartesian split or transvaluing a corporeality defamed by Platonic philosophy and more about recasting our ideas of body and mind, returning to lived experience, and seeing with fresh eyes how they operate.
Reflexivity and Musical Involvement
Just as the world of perceptual objects has its dialectical partner in the lived body, perception itself has a dialectical partner in thinking, the series of reflective or self-reflexive thoughts in words or other abstract symbols that play such a complex part in everyday experience. The place that thinking holds in musical performance has been explored by a number of scholars in phenomenological ethnomusicology. Building on ideas from Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, as well as the framework for phenomenological ethnomusicology forged by Stone, my book Metal, Rock, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Music Experience (Berger 1999) investigates the organization of attention in music performance. Based on fieldwork in four music scenes in northeast Ohio, the book explores the complex foreground/background structure of lived experience and the ways that musicians shift the focus of attention among various kinds of phenomena (e.g., music sound, their own bodies, other musicians, the audience, and reflexive thought in words) to constitute their experience of the performance event. Understanding the organization of attention as both actively achieved and necessarily informed by situated and large-scale social context, I argue that the constitution of lived experience is a kind of social practice, in the practice theory sense of the term (e.g., Giddens  1993, 1979, 1984; Bourdieu 1977). Further, my data show that musicians from various music scenes have differing attitudes toward reflexivity in performance. None of the musicians that I interviewed wanted to be distracted from musical sound by anxious reflections or arduous musical analyses, and players from the commercial hard rock, death metal, and 1950s-style bebop scenes all said that an ideal performance was unencumbered with reflexive thought in words. However, musicians from the post-bop jazz scene said that, for them, an effortless flow of reflexive thought would often accompany the sound of the other musicians in performance. In the best situations, ideas for new harmonic approaches, melodic devices, or forms of interaction with the other players would arise on the stand, weaving in and out of the center of attention and informing the player’s improvisation of musical lines without distracting from the sound of the other musicians or interrupting the act of performance. Comparing all of this with data on the organization of attention by participants in the Central Italian passeggiata (ritual promenade), my colleague Giovanna P. Del Negro and I have argued that cultures of performance have what we call an “aesthetic of reflexivity”—a set of culturally specific ideals regarding the role of reflexive awareness in events (Berger and Del Negro  2004).
The issue of reflexivity is most frequently taken up by phenomenological ethnomusicologists in the context of research on heightened states of involvement in music making. One well-known framework for exploring this topic comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (e.g.,  2000, 1990), a widely influential psychologist who defined “flow” as a state of consciousness in which the person’s cognitive and practical abilities are matched with the demands of the task she is performing. Situated in the informatic sweet spot “between boredom and anxiety,” as the title of his classic 1975 monograph describes it, flow states involve pleasure; a tight focus on the immediate task at hand; and, in their deepest forms, the paradoxical sensation of both the loss of self and of being in total control of one’s behavior. Perhaps most strikingly, these “deep flow” states are further characterized by a timeless quality, a kind of focused attention so intense that one’s awareness of past and future drops away and one feels that she is situated in an eternal present. Roger Savage’s notion of “limit experiences” in music, which are typified by trance rituals or situations of musical ecstasy, approaches related phenomena from a very different perspective (2009, 2010). Where Csikszentmihalyi sees qualities like pleasure, the paradoxical loss and expansion of self, and timelessness as the result of the fortuitous confluence of cognitive abilities and the practical demands of the task at hand, Savage focuses on the temporal qualities of the limit experiences themselves. Following Blacking in contrasting “music that is simply for having” with “music that is for being” (Blacking 1973, 50, cited in Savage 2009, 6), Savage argues that limit experiences carve a distinct temporal domain out of the linear passage of everyday time. Set apart from mundane temporality, limit experiences are “the other of time,” and Savage builds on Gadamer’s ideas about play to argue that such experiences are “self-disclosing” (i.e., they exist only in their enactment). While Savage argues that “music for being” is a universal phenomenon, the particular form that such limit experiences may take varies from culture to culture, and Savage explains that in these events, individuals experience the core mode of being of their society or historical epoch.
In many ways, the ethnographies of musical involvement carried out by phenomenological ethnomusicologists confirm the basic ideas of Csikszentmihalyi and Savage. For example, a number of scholars observe a two-stage process necessary for entering a heightened state. In Let the Inside Be Sweet ( 2010, 111–33), Stone explains how Kpelle identify an initial phase of performance, called “making music one,” in which the musicians focus on ensemble coordination, and a second, emotionally heightened phase of performance, called “making music many,” in which the now-coordinated performers differentiate their parts from one another and engage in the aestheticized exchange of musical cues. A related view is reported by Sarah Weiss in her rich discussion of Javanese theories of performance (2003). Based on the analysis of religious texts and historical accounts of music making, Weiss explores the Javanese view that the invocation of rasa (feeling) can only arise in an event when an artist (a musician, but also a dancer or a shadow puppet performer) has unified spirit and body through the deep internalization of the expressive resources of her genre. A similar perspective is shared by the UK indie rock musicians studied by Andy McGuiness (2013), who hold that the best performances take place when a musician has completely assimilated a song or musical passage. Standing apart from the music as it arises from her bodily performance, the rocker observes the song as it unfolds, each time in a unique way, and her musical identity is laid bare for the audience to observe. Drawing on the ideas of Sartre and others, McGuiness argues that, in such situations, the musician has a sense of ownership of her body (i.e., it is my body that is playing this instrument) but not a sense of agency (i.e., I am not directing the course of the action). Related themes play out in Dard Neuman’s work on Hindustani music (2012). Throughout these studies, scholars show how a failure to master expressive resources or coordinate with other musicians inhibits intense musical experience, while facility with one’s instrument, the technical demands of the piece one is performing, or the protocols of ensemble coordination enable heightened involvement and its striking experiential effects.
Savage’s ideas about the distinctive temporal quality of limit experience finds support in the work of Jonathan Shannon and Stone. Shannon (2003) shows that in Syrian Arab music, entrance into tarab (a “state of emotional rapture or enchantment,” 72) is associated with the use of repeated motifs and passages of rich melodic fluency that allow the listener to “detemporalize” experience, separate it from the linear flow of mundane time, while cadences and other transitional passages “retemporalize” experience, bringing the listener back to the everyday. In her later work on Kpelle music, Stone (1988) emphasizes how the “making music one” phase of Kpelle performance is associated with a focus on what Alfred Schütz (1951) referred to as “outer time” (the temporal progression of events in the public, intersubjective world), while the heightened experiences that occur when music is made many are accompanied by a focus on the “inner time” of affective experience. (I discuss Schütz’s work further in the next section.) And in different ways, Titon (2008), Rice (1994), Bakan (1999), Shannon (2003), Kapchan (2009), Feld ( 1994), Simonett (2009), and Turino (2014) support Csikszentmihalyi and Savage in their view that musical involvement is often associated with a loss of self and intense affective experiences.
While the similarities among the various example of heightened states of musical involvement are striking, it is important to avoid either reifying or romanticizing this phenomenon, and a careful reading of the various qualities of flow states suggests complexities that an overenthusiastic universalism may obscure. Consider the issue of the “loss of self” in performance. While many cultures equate heightened states with a quieting of the inner series of thoughts, this connection is by no means found everywhere. As I suggested previously, the post-bop jazz musicians that I interviewed in northeast Ohio do not find the inner thinking voice to be incompatible with flow states, and further reflection suggests other situations, such as the examples of chess playing and doctors performing surgery that Csikszentmihalyi studied ( 2000), in which thought in words or symbols may be an essential part of flow. Further, as I argue in other work (2004), the self is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon that emerges through a variety of experiential modalities, and the inner voice of thinking is only one form that the self may take. In the act of seeing, for example, the perspectival organization of visual phenomena constitutes a kind of perceptual self as the point around which the things of the world are arrayed. Though some acoustic spaces envelope the listener in sound and diminish the sense of here, near, and far, many listening environments foster a similarly perspectival and embodied sense of self, and Merleau-Ponty’s classic analyses of embodied subjectivity in tactile perception reveal other dimensions of the self that experiential involvement fails to annihilate (e.g., Merleau-Ponty  1962, 92;  1968, 147–48). Looking at the ways in which differing forms of the self might be fostered or diminished in heightened states points the way to more nuanced understandings of musical involvement.7
Phenomenological ethnomusicologists have done rich work on the relationship between musical involvement and culture, but further research is needed in this area. Savage, for example, emphasizes that while the musical limit experience may be a universal category, it is always enacted in culturally specific ways. Further, he suggests that a culture’s rituals of transcendent music are emblematic of its distinctive way of being-in-the-world—its way of “responding to the enigmas of existence” (Savage 2009, 17)—and a number of studies explore how such heightened experiences either enact religious ideologies (Humphreys 1991; Friedson 1996, 2009; Simonett 2009; Ho 2009) or are freighted with social or political meanings (Shannon 2003; Berger 1999, 2004; McGuiness 2013; Turino 2014). While there is no question that both the form and the meaning of heightened states are culturally specific, most phenomenological research on this topic has focused on situations in which a given ritual or musical genre can be neatly mapped onto a more or less well-bounded social group with a coherent worldview and ontology. But for many years, theorists and ethnographers inspired by the discourse theory of Mikhail Bakhtin (1981, 1986; see also Matejka 1973; Titunik 1973; Bauman and Briggs 1990) have focused attention on the diversity of experiences that emerge within a performance event, conflict and dissent within social groups, intercultural performance, and historical change. Studying musical involvement in contexts in which these sorts of dynamics are at play will enrich the phenomenological literature on this topic and provide a firmer philosophical grounding for discourse theory as well.8
One of the great achievements of the phenomenological movement has been to shed light on the perennial problem of time in philosophy. Grounded in concrete descriptions of the phenomena of change and persistence in lived experience, Husserl and Schütz have provided scholars with a precise and comprehensible language for talking about the temporal dimensions of our lives, and two works from the tradition form the starting place for most of the phenomenological ethnomusicology of musical temporality.
The first of these is Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness ( 1964), a groundbreaking study that shows that the present in which our experience is located is not, as our everyday talk might have it, an infinitely thin moment, like some monad-wide second hand, spinning endlessly on a metaphysical wristwatch. To have any kind of experience at all, our consciousness must embrace more than the temporal sliver of the “now-point”; rather, it must simultaneously embrace retentions of recently past events and anticipations (in the technical language, “protentions”) of future events. Husserl calls this dynamic arena of retention, now-point, and protention the “living present,” and all of our experiences exist in the thickness of this temporal space.
To get a firmer grasp on this idea, we need to be clear about the difference between retention and memory. In memory, Husserl showed, we draw past events that are currently absent from experience into the living present, as when we recall what we had for breakfast two days ago or the name of our third-grade teacher. Quite different from this, retention is not a recovery of absent phenomena into the present but a continuous survival of recent events in the conscious background of lived experience. As I read across a printed line of text, for example, my ability to retain the first words that I read is a necessary condition for my experience of sentence-level meaning. Reading “Jan eats fruit,” I must hold “Jan” in the backgrounded retentional portion of the living present as I read “eats” and “fruit.” If I do not, “eats” is simply an isolated word, and the sentence-level meaning does not emerge. Retaining the word “Jan” is not the same as remembering it. For the sentence to make sense, I must retain a backgrounded awareness of “Jan” as the temporal focus shifts to “eats.” By contrast, to remember “Jan” is to bring that word, which is absent from experience, back from memory into the now-point of the living present, and I only need to do this if I failed to retain it in the first place. If retention is not memory, protention is not precognition. On the contrary, it is the empty anticipation in the future portion of the living present of currently unrealized phenomena, phenomena that may fail to materialize at all. Retaining “Jan” and allowing “eats” to emerge into the now-point, an English speaker protends an open anticipation of things that can be eaten (e.g., bread, crackers, “humble pie”), which is in the next moment fulfilled by the word “fruit.” Husserl’s analysis of the retentional/protentional structure of the living present is foundational for all phenomenological work on time.9 Within ethnomusicology, Ihde’s Listening and Voice (1976), which draws on Husserl’s ideas about time consciousness along with the work of other thinkers, has been highly influential.
If Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness reveals the temporal structure of lived experience, Schütz’s classic article “Making Music Together” (1951) illustrates the social dimensions of temporality. In this important work, Schütz observes that musical experience is essentially “polythetic,” occurring in a temporal, “step-by-step” fashion (90–91). To grasp the musical sense of a written score, for example, one must immerse oneself in the forward-moving flux of the series of notes that the composer specified; in doing so, one recapitulates the same temporal sequence that the composer, or other readers of the score, have formed. This social process aligns one’s own experience with that of others in a way that partially transcends the space and time of the immediate situation. While Schütz sets up his discussion with an analysis of the reading of musical scores, the focus of his article is the sociality of time in face-to-face interaction. Here, he contrasts “outer time,” our experience of the uniform, measurable flow of physical events, with “inner time,” the qualitative feel of duration, such as the lived sense that a process is swift or plodding (88–89). Schütz argues that, in music making, we observe the physical gestures of the other to coordinate our sense of inner time with hers. This “tuning-in” process constitutes a “We” relationship that is the foundation of live music making and communication in face-to-face interaction more generally. Schütz was a trained pianist and music scholar, and while “Making Music Together” is his best-known work on music, his extensive unpublished writings on the topic gained currency after his death, when they were published under the title “Fragments on the Phenomenology of Music” (1976).
The ideas of Husserl and Schütz have been extended by phenomenological ethnomusicologists in a variety of ways. On a basic level, a number of authors have shown that, while the living present is a universal feature of experience, the ways in which events in time are made to cohere within that living present can vary enormously from culture to culture. Ruth Stone’s work on Kpelle performance, begun in Let the Inside Be Sweet and developed further in Dried Millet Breaking (1988), is among the most fully worked out analyses of the temporal structure of experience in a non-Western music culture, and the central concept in her discussion is the “expandable moment.” Where the temporal experiences of Western conservatory music devotees are frequently parsed into units of measurable duration such as phrases or sections, the temporal unit of Kpelle performance is the “moment,” which may be inflated to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the improvisatory interactions among the participants. Stone observes that Kpelle sometimes organize time in quantitative ways. However, their dominant manner of structuring the living present is qualitative, and her work shows how the shape of the living present in Kpelle performances is influenced by wide range of musical devices and abstract organizing principles—from the tendency to fit many small musical motifs together to form coherent wholes, to tropes of exchange (such as call-and-response and interlocking rhythms) and interaction (such as the interplay between a lead vocal part and an underlying ostinato), and from narrative devices in the epic story that construct plot episodes around images of continuous motion to the broad principle of “action without direction” that shapes all dimensions of the event. It is worth emphasizing that the tropes of musical texture that help the performer organize temporal experience are also tropes of social organization. To perform interlocking rhythms, for example, musicians must tightly coordinate their temporal experiences, hearing the flow of notes coming from one’s own instrument and those of the other as forming a single unit as it processes through the living present, and Stone devotes substantial attention to the distinctive ways that Kpelle achieve the tuning-in necessary for the Schützian We relationship.10
Across cultures, music may have varying forms of rhythmic organization, but it is the interplay among sound structures, the perceptual agency of listeners, and the mediating role of culture that determine the temporal form that any given musical experience will take. Consider the example of a listener hearing a musical passage with a repeating sequence of four drum strokes of equal duration, played at a moderate tempo with a strong dynamic accent on the first beat. Such a part may encourage the listener to hear the music in four four time—that is, to conjoin together the four beats into a unit as the flow of sounds processes through the living present, with the accented beat protended or retained as the starting point. While listeners trained in the Western conservatory tradition are likely to experience the part in this manner, there are a variety of other ways of grasping the part—for example, actively protending and retaining the accented stroke that appears every two cycles to make a hypermetrical unit appear in the living present, or focusing on the timbral details of each individual stroke and pushing the protended and retained units into the deeper background to diminish in experience the appearance of the metrical block. Like all perception, listening is neither the result of personal whim nor a mechanical registering of objective reality in experience but rather the outcome of the person’s social engagement with the world.
Attending to the interplay of music structure, perceptual agency, and culture has been a focus for the phenomenological ethnomusicology of time. Following Ihde’s well-known discussion of the phenomenology of multi-stable visual figures,11 Friedson (1996), for example, argues that the rhythms of Tumbuka healing rituals have a kind of temporal multi-stability. Ritual participants can group the music’s drum strokes in one of several different units and with varying starting places, and the participant’s exercise of perceptual agency here is a central part of the meaning of these performances. Discussing time perception in heavy metal music (Berger 1997), I show how a heavy metal drummer shifts the focus of his attention from the level of eighth notes to that of quarter notes or to the second and fourth beats of the measure to achieve differing goals in performance. Focusing on the eighth notes as they process through the living present, for example, allows the musician to play with a more smoothly flowing rhythmic feel, while attention to the quarter notes allows the drummer to synchronize his playing more tightly with the other musicians, an approach that may become useful when ensemble coordination is a problem.
The temporal organization of experience has implications for the perception of musical structure in sonic dimensions beyond rhythm, for broader issues of cultural meaning, and for a wide range of related issues. Exploring harmonic rhythm in a song from the death metal repertoire (Berger 1999), I show how both the tonal functions that death metal musicians hear in the music and the very different functions heard by listeners from the Western conservatory tradition depend on the listener’s organization of sound in the living present. Finding patterns in metalheads’ temporal experiences, I argue that their tendency to assemble moments in disjunct, fragmented patterns stems from the emphasis on rage and aggression in this music culture. McGuiness (2013) emphasizes that uncertainty is an essential quality of temporality and builds on this observation to illustrate how his indie rockers’ organization of musical experience in time connects to themes of shame and vulnerability. Thomas Porcello (1998) richly extends the Schützian perspective to account for the complexities of media technology in the construction of the We relation, and his sophisticated discussion shows how participants who take up differing roles in the production of recorded music may engage with the temporality of recordings in differing ways. Stone argues that the forms of temporal experience constituted in Kpelle musical performance resonate with their temporal experiences in everyday life and a general cultural tendency toward qualitative time (1988). Drawing on Merleau-Ponty, Rahaim shows that the phenomenon of melody cannot be reduced to static structures of pitch and reveals how both the static and dynamic dimensions of melodic experience are grounded in the lived body (2012). Friedson (1996) reads Schütz through a Heideggerian lens to argue that the tuning-in process of the We relation enables the participants’ shared copresence, without which the ritual could not exist. As we have seen, Savage (2009) forwards this line of thinking when he argues that the significance of music as an ontological category depends on its ability to carve stretches of time out of the mundane flow of everyday temporality and create sharply framed domains of experience.
If Savage emphasizes music’s ability to separate events from the flow of mundane temporality, other scholars have explored the ways that the present musical moment can be situated within larger scales of time consciousness. To have a sense of overall musical form, for example, one’s foregrounded experience of the immediate phrase or section must appear in the living present against more deeply backgrounded protentions and retentions of the piece’s other sections (see, e.g., Berger 1999, 237–41). Similar processes situate the present piece within our awareness of the overall music event, and these examples do not exhaust the range of time scales in which perception is nested. An example of such processes appears in a brief but remarkable article by Paul Humphreys (1991), which describes a monastic ritual in Rinzai Buddhism that is performed at sunrise and before bedtime each day. The ritual is always begun with the performance of a specific rhythmic passage on a heavy wooden board, and Humphreys convincingly argues that, as the day progresses, a deeply backgrounded retention of the morning performance and a deeply backgrounded protention of the evening performance frame the adherents’ quotidian experiences. Humphreys provides a detailed analysis of the rhythmic design of the part and the ways in which it encourages the musician to shift from a distanced observation of the drum strokes to an immersion in the act of playing. Humphreys reads this in terms of Buddhist beliefs about the interdependence of duality and nonduality, and he argues that by framing the day’s events with a visceral experience of the shift from duality to nonduality, the ritual helps practitioners deepen their Buddhist perspective. Turning to even larger time scales, my book Stance discusses the variety of ways in which the situated moment may be framed by protentions and retentions on the level of calendrical cycles or the broader, open protentions of future phases in the course of the person’s life (Berger 2010, 84–96).
If the phenomenological literature in philosophy has mapped the space of lived temporality, phenomenological ethnomusicology has revealed dynamics within that space that could only be revealed by ethnographic methods. The studies of music cultures beyond the Western conservatory tradition by Stone, Friedson, Porcello, Humphreys, myself, and others suggest dynamics very different from those that Schütz illuminated, and there is no reason to assume that all of the possibilities of temporal organization have been exhausted. In the broadest sense, what Husserl and Schütz show is that experience is the result of a dynamic synthesis of elements in a temporal “space” that reaches across the now-point and beyond the individual. Like the material systematicity or structural corporeality that emerges in the analysis of embodiment, the temporal dimension of experience likewise involves an intimacy between structure and substance. Each sounding object, each musical form, each social dynamic appears to us within the living present and therefore, at a high level of abstraction, can be described in the phenomenological language that that philosophical tradition provides. But each one of these phenomena also involves a distinctive signature of emergence, persistence, and change whose specificity eludes a priori explication. This is not because they transcend the living present that Husserl so ably sketched out but because our very understanding of time as an abstract category is always revealed through the particularities of changing and persisting things. Husserl’s method of fantasy variation is one way of getting at the possibilities and limits of phenomena, but when we do fieldwork or engage richly with ethnographies, the new worlds that we confront force us to go beyond our past experience and learn new meanings for abstractions like “living present” or “polythetic experience.” And because perception is both an openness to the things of the world and an agentive grappling with those things, experience has a plasticity that is unlikely to be exhausted by a library of phenomenological ethnographies, let only the few shelves that we currently possess. Informed by philosophy and enlivened by ethnography, the phenomenological ethnomusicology of time offers vast new domains to explore.
Research Methodology and the Ethnomusicological Project
For those new to phenomenologically oriented work, the issue of methodology is sometimes a stumbling block. I have my experiences, and you have yours, the newcomer states; there is, therefore, no way to bridge the gap between us, and phenomenological research is impossible. As I have argued elsewhere, such a perspective assumes that experience is strictly internal to the person, that each of us is an island of subjectivity separated by the frigid ocean of the physical world (Berger 1999, 230–31). At this point in the discussion, it should be clear why that perspective is untenable. It is true, of course, that I can never see through the eyes of another person, precisely emulate the acculturation that has shaped her ways of hearing, or form an exact identity between her experience and mine. But none of these things is necessary for phenomenological research. As Alessandro Duranti so eloquently argued in “Husserl, Intersubjectivity, and Anthropology” (2010), the phenomenological tradition shows us that we live in a shared and public world, that the dynamics of interpretation are a general feature of social life, and that our being as social and embodied subjects guarantees a sociability at its core; our intersubjectivity, common hermeneutic predicament, and intercorporeality make us fundamentally, not contingently, social and thus secure the grounding for social research.12 Exploring that ground is a topic that has been actively pursued by scholars in the phenomenological tradition. With its emphasis on the description of lived experience, the methodological utility of the epoché (phenomenological brackets), and the technique of fantasy variation, phenomenology has always been as much a way of doing philosophy as a body of positive doctrine. No less than philosophers, the ethnomusicologists inspired by phenomenology have taken up issues of research methodology, and the insights into field research and the interpretation of data that they have developed address issues at the heart of the ethnomusicological project.
The first work on research methods in phenomenological ethnomusicology was Ruth Stone and Verlon Stone’s “Event, Feedback, and Analysis: Research Media in the Study of Music Events” (1981). Operationalizing the theoretical framework that Ruth Stone later developed in Let the Inside Be Sweet, Stone and Stone argue for a deep commonality between the activity of the fieldworker and the research participant that she studies: both are engaged in the interpretation of music, and their interpretive practices underlie both music events and ethnographic interviews. In this context, the “feedback interview” is a research technique in which fieldworkers present research participants with mediated representations of past performance events and encourage them to engage in partially shared interpretive practices. Audio and video recordings are the most obvious source material for feedback interviews, but Stone and Stone construe the technique broadly to include interviews based on field notes or memories as feedback-based research interactions. While Stone and Stone argue that feedback interviews provide a powerful means for understanding both the meanings that participants find in music and the interpretive process by which those meanings are constituted, they avoid the simplistic view that feedback interviews provide direct or complete access to the world of the other’s experience. In contrast, they argue that each kind of media introduces its own dynamics into the research process and shapes the data that emerge there. For example, audio and video recordings offer participants the opportunity to replay short segments of musical interaction and yield subtle, fine-grained interpretations, but that same replay capacity offers the participant a way of listening that is absent from most live events. Using field notes and memories as the basis for feedback interviews does not allow the research participant to engage in the richly embodied interpretive practices that audio or video recordings do, but these materials open up other interpretive possibilities, allowing the participant to shift quickly from one event to the next, skip around in time, and organize information in locally salient ways. Understood in this manner, all interviews are feedback interviews, and Stone and Stone’s analysis of this specific research technique ultimately yields general insights into the nature of musical interpretation itself. Thirty-two years after the publication of “Event, Feedback, and Analysis,” Ruth Stone updated her work on feedback interviews in an article coauthored by Angela Stone-MacDonald (Stone-MacDonald and Stone 2013) that explores the new interpretive possibilities that digital video recording has enabled.
Perhaps the most frequently cited studies of methodology in phenomenological ethnomusicology are the rich chapters by Rice and Titon in Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology (Barz and Cooley 2008). Arguing that hermeneutics offers a way to overcome the insider/outsider dichotomy in ethnography, Rice provides an intimate account of his many years of fieldwork on Bulgarian music. The central moment in the narrative comes when Rice had surpassed a beginner’s knowledge of the culture’s bagpipe tradition but, despite many hours of lessons and interviews, was still unable to master its ornamental techniques, which are iconic of both the music culture and Bulgarian identity. Rice describes how he was finally able to acquire these techniques through a deep bodily immersion in the music, which revealed a set of corporeal practices central to the local experience but never thematized in traditional Bulgarian pedagogical discourse. In a nuanced discussion, Rice argues that having mastered the ornamental techniques, he found himself occupying a strangely liminal position between insider and outsider, musically “native” but not fully “inside” or “outside” the culture. Theorizing these experiences with ideas from Gadamer and Ricoeur, Rice argues that rather than conceptualizing fieldwork as an attempt to shed our cultural past and see the world through our research participants’ eyes, we as researchers should capitalize on the fact that we share the same hermeneutic situation as our interlocutors: both we and they are interpreters of culture. Read through the lens of the hermeneutic circle, our job as fieldworkers is to learn how to place ourselves before the works of the cultures that we study, allow ourselves to be transformed by these works, and enter the world that these works create. In his research, Rice’s focus is still on understanding the experiences of his Bulgarian research participants; however, the achievement of that task can only ever be partial, and it comes about as much through partially shared musical practices as it does through the elicitation of explicit native exegesis in interviews. Related themes are developed in Titon’s chapter, which reviews the history of field methods in ethnomusicology and distinguishes “understanding” from “explanation” as modes of knowledge in social research (2008, 27). While Titon says that both fall within the purview of ethnomusicology, he argues that ethnomusicology should emphasize understanding, which is achieved through shared experiences of music making and the development of close emotional relationships with our research participants. The products of fieldwork—books, articles, recordings—are thus understood as narrativized representations of those relationships, and in a postscript to his chapter in the second edition of Shadows in the Field, Titon argues that the social relationships necessary for ethnomusicological understanding must be grounded in a kind of rapport that he defines as “friendship” (37–40).
While they differ in terminology, fieldwork technique, and engagement with the philosophical literature, Stone, Rice, and Titon all see ethnographic research as an interpretive project of partial sharing. These themes are carried forward in differing ways throughout the literature on methodology in phenomenological ethnomusicology. Articulating the hermeneutic approach through specifically Heideggerian language, Friedson takes as his study object the distinctive form of being-in-the world that his research participants enact in music making, and fieldwork for him is grounded on a participation with the other, which allows the researcher to inhabit, and therefore later interpret, his interlocutor’s mode of Dasein. Bakan likewise grounds his research on embodied social interaction with his interlocutors and, as we have seen, provides an alternative reading of the hermeneutic literature to develop new goals for ethnomusicological research. In differing ways, Rice (2008), Titon (2008), McIntosh (2006, 2009), Clayton (2008, 2013), Feld (1996), Wolf (2006), McGuiness (2013), and Turino (2014) all argue that musical practice has a richness that is never fully captured by language, and these scholars therefore see interview techniques, exegetic discourse, and historical documents as less significant sources than participant observation (cf. Henderson 1996). McIntosh (2006, 2009) and Stone ( 2010) emphasize the situated nature of fieldwork, while Stone and Stone (1981), Rice (2008), Titon (2008), and I (Berger 1999) all emphasize its dialogic qualities.
Despite the common emphasis on partial sharing—of meaning, of the interpretive predicament, of modes of being-in-the-world—phenomenologically oriented ethnomusicologists approach field research in a variety of ways. My own work, for example, has argued that the emphasis on empathetic engagement with research participants that phenomenological ethnomusicologists so prize does not preclude the use of critical perspectives (Berger 1999, 251–97). Drawing on ideas from Sartre and the Marxist tradition of social thought, I observe that the power relations in which our everyday lives are situated shape both our experiences and the interpretations we make of them, often in ways that we do not fully understand. It is, of course, patronizing to assume that our research participants are little more than culture dopes, marionettes whose strings are pulled by the puppetmasters of race, class, or gender. But it is also problematic, I argue, to assume that our research participants have a complete understanding of their experiences or that our research participants’ interpretive processes are unaffected by the power relations in which they are situated. Every ethnographic encounter requires its own field techniques and style of writing, and not all analysis must take politics as its center of gravity. But in many situations, it is difficult to understand musical experience without exploring its connection to power, and the participants themselves do not always possess a clear or complete understanding of that connection. One technique for addressing such situations, I suggest, is critical ethnographic dialogue. Here, multiple conflicting perspectives can come together; scholars and research participants explore the complex, often difficult politics of music experience and social life; and interpretive closure is not always reached. This technique will not work in every field situation, but I argue that in many contexts it offers an opportunity for insights that approaches based solely on empathetic engagement might not uncover.
Methodology is theory operationalized, and the discussion in this section only begins to examine the complex issues of theory and method that phenomenological ethnomusicologists have taken up. As I suggested previously, a number of scholars (Becker 2004; Clayton 2008; Clayton and Leante 2013) have offered ways of bringing phenomenology into conversation with approaches from cognitive science and psychology, while the work by Ruth Herbert (2011b, 2011a), Robert Faulkner (2013), and Matthew Sansom (2005) illustrates how interpretive phenomenological analysis (a research methodology from the discipline of psychology) may articulate with approaches from ethnomusicology. The debate among Becker (2009), Titon (2009), and Bakan (2009) in the journal Ethnomusicology illustrates the diversity of perspectives that currently exist regarding the relationship between humanistic and social scientific approaches to music and the role of phenomenology in ethnomusicological research. While phenomenology is a coherent body of thought that can be used to examine the full range of topics in ethnomusicology, many scholars in our field have combined ideas from this tradition with those from other movements in Western philosophy or social theory to develop new syntheses and craft new perspectives (e.g., Feld 1996; Rice 2001, 2003; Turino 2014).13 And turning to even broader contexts, a number of researchers in our discipline have linked phenomenological approaches with ideas from non-Western philosophy to speak to problems of interpretation, theory, and method (e.g., Humphreys 1991; Slawek 1996; Ho 2009; Weiss 2003).
For many in our field, understanding the musical experiences of the people with whom we work is at the heart of the ethnomusicological project. Phenomenology offers a unique set of tools for pursuing that project. Attending to culture but sensitive to agency, deeply engaged with questions of ontology and metaphysics but alive to the most pragmatic and contingent elements of everyday life, phenomenology offers a way of making connections with our research participants, respecting and exploring our differences while still keeping sight of our common predicaments of interpretation, embodiment, and power. From its earliest roots in the philosophical phenomenologies of music, through the pathbreaking work of the 1980s-era ethnomusicological ethnographers, to contemporary developments in the field, those grounded in phenomenology have studied music as a unique and significant element in experience and also as a site for investigating the broader dynamics of social life.
In the last thirty-five years, the range of study objects that ethnomusicologists in the tradition have explored has been broad. But this work has only begun to examine the variety of topics that are open to phenomenological investigation, and many areas of research remain unexamined. Husserl intended phenomenology to be a foundation for all forms of inquiry, and the scope of the tradition is and should be as broad as the scope of human experience. In that spirit, I want to suggest that the bounty of microsocial analyses in our field may have obscured the fact that the macrosocial world is equally amenable to phenomenological investigation. At first, this idea may sound strange, but it will appear less so, I think, when we remember that both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty developed Left radical work in the area of political philosophy and that phenomenological Marxism is still a live intellectual tradition. Alfred Schütz’s Phenomenology of the Social World ( 1967) in particular and phenomenological social theory in general were given short shrift in the canonical early statements of practice theory by Anthony Giddens ( 1993, 38) and Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 3–5). These writers dismiss phenomenology as reducing the social world to mere subjective impression, but as C. Jayson Throop and Keith M. Murphy have shown (2002), such criticisms are only tenable if we conflate phenomenology with naïve subjectivism, a perspective that all of the major thinkers in phenomenology have been at pains to reject (see also Berger 2010; Rahaim 2012). As a result, phenomenology offers new possibilities to scholars interested in the macrosocial life of music. Taking a phenomenological approach to studying a sector of the music industry, for example, an ethnomusicologist would begin by investigating how people inhabit various institutional roles (musician, manager, promoter, etc.) and would continue by examining how their actions emerge within and respond to a horizon of other actors and institutions. The research would then work outward toward a phenomenology of those institutions, understanding them as the outcome of the intended and unintended practices of individual agents. Such work would seek to show how power relations are both established and resisted by the constitutive practices of their participants. In so doing, it would advance the approach of practice theory by giving the theoretical building blocks of that tradition a firmer ontological foundation in lived experience. Grounded in a communication studies approach to music rather than ethnomusicology, Patrick Burkart’s discussion of the colonization of the life-world by the global music industry (2010) suggests another articulation of phenomenology and macrosocial analysis, and the opportunities for research in this area are far-reaching.
Discussing Husserl’s preface to the 1931 English translation of his foundational study Ideas I, Marianne Sawicki (n.d.) describes the sense of breathtaking wonder that Husserl felt at having discovered the possibilities of phenomenological research. Husserl likens the new domain of philosophy that he had uncovered to a “new Atlantis,” a “new continent,” and ultimately a “promised land” (Husserl 1931, 15, 21, quoted in Sawicki). While many in contemporary scholarship do not share Husserl’s view of phenomenology as the investigation of transcendental subjectivity, the idea of a return to experience has lost none of its power or awe-inspiring force. Returning to experience with eyes and ears vivified by the phenomenological project, we take the things most readily at hand as our object of study. Seen and heard in this new way, the things of the world retain their mundane reality, even as we go beyond that mundanity to wonder at their paradoxical nature. The world of experience is a world of things—as autonomous and independent from us as we know them to be, and yet always present for us, here and now, within the ambit of conscious life. The world of experience is a world of others—as separate from ourselves as our everyday intuition tells us they are, and yet, through their very alterity, forming the foundation of sociality and thus the possibility of our own subjectivity.
If phenomenology opens us up to the paradoxical wonder of experience, then phenomenological ethnomusicology begins by drawing our attention to a subset of that experiential world, opening us up to new possibilities for insight even as it sharpens our focus. From the tedium of programmed music in retail environments to the most powerful experiences in a concert hall or between two earbuds, the things that are called music are vital study objects—both as elements of experience that contribute important threads to the texture of everyday life and as phenomena that stir our deepest passions. Of equal significance, the study of musical experience serves as an entry point to the rest of the social universe, a starting place for inquiry that draws the researcher beyond the music event to areas as diverse and significant as the affective life of capitalism, the neurobiology of trance, the nature of time, or the paradoxes of embodiment. As either an end or a starting place, music is therefor a vital object of study. In this context, phenomenological ethnomusicology continues to offer a profound potential for plumbing its depths and tracing out its connections.
I would like to express my appreciation to Helena Simonett and Charles Sharp for useful conversations on phenomenological ethnomusicology that expanded my appreciation for the tradition.
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(1) Like a visiting dignitary at a formal reception, phenomenology has been “introduced” many times, and the scholar interested in making a first approach to this literature often has difficulties selecting a starting point from among these many works. Sophisticated and accessible, monographs by Hammond, Howarth, and Keat (1991) and Ihde (1986) are two of the best introductions to the tradition as a whole. The articles on phenomenology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (Zalta 2014) and the Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (Embree et al. 1997) are useful reference works, while studies by Erazim Kohák (1978), Hubert Dreyfus (1991), and James Schmidt (1985) provide valuable discussions of key works and thinkers. Ruth Stone’s Theory for Ethnomusicology (2008) includes a helpful discussion of the role of phenomenology in the founding of comparative musicology, as well as a broader exploration of the relationship between phenomenology and ethnomusicology. A passage in the “Further Comments” that Charles Keil and Steven Feld provide after the “First Dialog” in their book Music Grooves (1994, 47) explains the role of phenomenology in the development of their thinking and offers a long list of citations to works in the tradition they found especially useful. A similar aim animates the listing of sources in Bakan (1999, 336n11). In differing ways, Stone ( 2010, 165–76), Titon (2008), Rice (2008), and I (Berger 1999, 19–25; 2010, vii–xix, 137–39nn6–7) offer perspectives on the development of a phenomenological ethnomusicology. Ferrara and Behnke’s “Music” article in the Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (1997) provides a useful history of phenomenologies of music, primarily from the fields of philosophy and musicology. While Ferrara and Behnke do not engage works in the discipline of ethnomusicology, their discussion traces a history that develops in the direction of a rich understanding of the fundamentally social, cultural, and embodied nature of musical experience. Such a perspective is consonant with the approaches of the ethnomusicological tradition.
(5) This construction is influenced by ideas from the practice theory of the early Anthony Giddens ( 1993, 1979, 1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1977), a perspective that I have explored throughout my work (e.g., 1999, 2010). It is worth emphasizing here that the interplay of practice and context is not limited to culture or the micro-social realm. Macro-social formations (e.g., music cultures, musical institutions like conservatories or corporations, and other large-scale social phenomena like states and societies) are likewise the outcome of the intended and unintended consequences of situated practice. I return to the discussion of the relationship between phenomenology and practice theory in the final section of this article.
(8) Embodiment and musical involvement are part of a cluster of related topics that phenomenological ethnomusicologists have explored richly, and chief among these is trance. Friedson’s discussion of trance as a Heideggerian “being away” (2009, 16–17, 35–37) is among the most sophisticated examinations of that issue in the scholarly literature, phenomenological or otherwise. For other studies of trance in phenomenological ethnomusicology, see Sager (2009), Simonett (2009, 2014), and Kapchan (2009, 2013). Phenomenology is combined with approaches from the social sciences in Judith Becker’s celebrated Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing (2004), while a related configuration of methods underlies Ruth Herbert’s Everyday Music Listening: Absorption, Dissociation, and Trancing (2011a; see also Herbert 2011b). On music and disembodiment in situations other than trance, see Humphreys (1991), Berger (1999), Rahaim (2012), McGuiness (2013), and Henderson (1996). For phenomenological work on embodiment and place, see Feld (1996), Wolf (2006), and Conn (2012).
(9) Ferrara and Behnke (1997) observe that in The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness ( 1964), Husserl himself illustrated the structure of the living present with musical examples, and their article summarizes his discussions of protention and retention in the perception of melody, as well as his broader insights into the problem of the identity of works of music.
(10) For other applications of Schütz’s ideas in ethnomusicology, see Feld ( 1994), Friedson (1996), Porcello (1998), Rahaim (2012), Shannon (2003), and Thacker (2012). See Wolf (2006) for a sophisticated critique of Schütz’s ideas of inner and outer time.
(11) Multi-stable figures are illustrations that can be viewed in more than one way, such as Rubin’s goblet (a drawing that is typically seen as either a vase or two silhouettes facing one another) and the Necker cube (a drawing that can be seen either as a cube viewed from below or as a cube viewed from above).
(12) The same conclusion can be reached by pressing the skeptical implications of the newcomer’s objection to their logical conclusion. Thus, it is certainly true that I can never have a direct and perfectly repeatable access to the experience of the other in all of her particularity. However, I can never have that kind of direct and perfectly repeated access to my own experience either, since memory does not return my past experiences to me in exactly the same form that they originally appeared. If it can only be said that I know another’s experience if I have direct and perfectly repeatable access to it, then my past selves are as unknowable to me as the other, and I am locked in a solipsistic now, truly knowing only my most immediate thoughts. This is, of course, an untenable position. If perfectly repeatable experience is a chimera, then we are forced to rethink the nature of experience itself and with it the metaphor of subjective islands adrift in an ocean of objective reality, upon which the newcomer’s objections to phenomenological methods are based.
(13) In his recent article, “Peircean Thought as Core Theory for a Phenomenological Ethnomusicology,” Thomas Turino argues for the utility of Charles Sanders Peirce’s ideas for theoretical work in our field (2014). The piece reviews Peirce’s ontology and semiotics, discusses some of the work in phenomenological ethnomusicology (most prominently, that of Friedson and Titon), and applies Peircean ideas to a range of issues in music. The closing sections of the article use examples from the author’s experiences as a banjo player in a string band to illustrate his application of Peirce’s ideas to ethnomusicology. Employing the intellectual tools that I have adapted from Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, I would describe Turino’s work here as an analysis of the organization attention in performance and the various ways in which differing kinds of experiences can play out in music events. There is much to like in this insightful article, and many ideas here resonate with my own writings (Berger 1999, 119–73; Berger and Del Negro  2004; Berger 2004).
In the piece, Turino contrasts what he calls “Peircean” and “continental” phenomenology and seems to suggest that Peirce’s phenomenology offers advantages over the continental variety. Early on, for example, Turino states, “Like continental phenomenology, Peircean phenomenology focuses attention on the becoming of individual selves, which are also social selves, through ongoing experiences in the world. But Peirce adds a whole set of systematically-related tools for understanding the specifics of the processes of being in the world that continental phenomenology (e.g., Heidegger, Hurssel [sic], Dilthey) does not” (186). There are significant insights in Peirce’s scholarship, but I disagree with the suggestion that his work is more useful than that of Husserl or the thinkers who sprang from his tradition. Specifically addressing Turino’s claims in the quoted passage, I note, for example, that being-in-the-world was Heidegger’s primary focus, and his writings present a wealth of concepts (e.g., “equipmentality,” “un-readiness-to-hand,” “presence-at-hand”) for analyzing the nature of human existence. Likewise, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty provide carefully developed frameworks for exploring the nature of lived experience and the complexities of embodied consciousness. Different scholars will, of course, use differing approaches to understand related study objects, and I am not interested in arguing for the superiority of one philosophical tradition over the other. More significant for the purposes of the present article is the representation of intellectual history that Turino’s writing suggests.
Given the way that Turino frames his discussion, readers may come away from his piece with the impression that Peirce was simply part of the phenomenological movement or that his work was, in a straightforward way, a branch of this tradition. The historical reality is different from this and much more complex. As David Woodruff Smith has observed (2013), the word “phenomenology” appeared in print as early as the 1730s and was used by a variety of writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Husserl adopted the term as well, of course, giving it a radically new meaning and using it as the name of his philosophical method, which he intended as a decisive break from all previous forms of philosophy. His Logical Investigations, published in two volumes in 1900 and 1901, is the founding document of the phenomenology movement ([1900/1901] 2001). In contemporary philosophical discourse, or at least the parts that I am aware of, the unmarked use of the word “phenomenology” refers to the intellectual tradition that flowed from this work. In contrast, Peirce was the founder of the philosophical school known as “pragmatism.” During a brief but significant period of his career, Peirce used the word “phenomenology” to refer to a form of research he was developing, though after a few years he rejected the word “phenomenology” and replaced it with a number of new terms, such as “phaneroscopy” and “phenoscopy” (Spiegelberg and Schuhmann  1994, 16; Stjernfelt 2007, 143; Short 2007, 61). Peirce scholars sometimes use the expression “Peircean phenomenology” to talk about this work, although T. L. Short actively chose to use the term “phaneroscopy” for this research, so as to differentiate Peirce’s thought from that of Husserl and his followers (2007, 61).
More important than the terminological issue is the historical and intellectual relationship between Peirce and Husserl, and a number of scholars have written about this topic. In terms of historical connections, their research suggests that Husserl and Peirce had only a slight familiarity with each other’s writings (see Spiegelberg 1956, 183; Spiegelberg and Schuhmann  1994, 16–18; Short 2007, 61; Stjernfelt 2007, 142, 144). Working with very little awareness of one another, Husserl and Peirce developed distinct systems of thought with distinct intellectual apparatuses. While the research on the relationship between these thinkers has shown a number of areas in which their writings resonate, the case for those resonances is only accomplished through substantial philosophical and historical effort—efforts to build bridges between their very different concepts, arguments, and systems. Highly sympathetic to the affinities between Husserl and Peirce, Spiegelberg’s early work on the subject nevertheless identifies more differences than similarities between the two (1956, 185), and his monumental history of phenomenology, The Phenomenological Movement, clearly places Peirce outside the tradition (Spiegelberg and Schuhmann  1994, 16–18). Short seems to draw similar conclusions. Stjernfelt sees deep intellectual connections between Husserl and Peirce, though even he acknowledges differences. Whether Stjernfelt makes the case that the two thinkers are fundamentally compatible—or is even trying to offer that strong an argument—is not fully clear to me. What is clear, however, is that it is only with substantial intellectual work that these various scholars are able to relate the very different philosophical apparatuses and arguments of Husserl and Peirce. Framing its discussion in terms of an unproblematized contrast between “Peircean” and “continental” phenomenologies, “Peircean Thought as Core Theory for a Phenomenological Ethnomusicology” might give some readers the impression that Peirce’s work was, in a simple and direct manner, part of the phenomenological movement or one branch of that tradition. My hope is that this brief discussion has dispelled that impression.