I recently gave a talk at the Department of Public and Cultural Affairs at National Taitung University. One of the more interesting challenges of the talk was that the department has an activist and applied orientation toward research on Taiwanese indigenous language and cultural practices. Most of the graduate students in the department are indigenous cultural activists who maintain close connections with particular villages. While not unaware of more theoretical work in anthropology and related disciplines, these students find that the current dilemmas facing Taiwan’s indigenous communities compel them toward applied work

In keeping with this audience, I revisited a paper that I presented last year to music educators. The problem that I wanted to address in the talk concerned musical transmission. Many practices for traditional music transition are inherently conservative, meaning that they intend to preserve a musical corpus; particularly on Taiwan, these practices have overly valued recording and transcription and slighted the ongoing life of musical practices in (and, more importantly, as) social contexts. The result has been several fine recordings and transcriptions of traditional musics, but these recordings cannot overcome the silence that surrounds them as the musical practices from which these recordings have been cropped disappear. Of course, the recordings contribute to rhetorics of endangerment, loss, and salvage that animate them; and in this sense ethnomusicological field recording partakes in the kind of sentimental pessimism of much ethnographic work in general

Although I tend to be suspicious of rhetorics of loss and endangerment, I do think that ethnomusicologists have much to contribute to applied work, particularly when it comes to musical transmission. In particular, those who work on musical transmission and preservation could usefully employ our approach to musics as contexts of social action and our awareness that metamusical ideology—the way that we talk about or describe qualities of “music”—shifts the way that we engage with musics. Much work on “traditional musics” fails, I argue, because it never actively questions a metamusical ideology in which “music” is an object of some sort, whether that object is an aesthetic form or a language. Of course, sociolinguistics long challenged whether “languages” were freestanding objects; so the common idea that “music is a universal language” is doubly flawed. It works neither as a good model of music nor as a particularly good model of language. However, it is this kind of metaphor, slightly modified by a Herderian relativism that tends to inform much work on musical preservation

My talk introduced work on participatory performance from Turino and a few ethnomusicologists working on highly participatory types of musical practices. Because I wanted to provide a comparison that might offer my audience exposure to musical practices with which they were not acquainted, I looked at both musical practices in A’tolan, where I am doing fieldwork, and Sacred Harp singing. For the latter, I worked with my own observations of Sacred Harp and Kiri Miller’s work. Overall, my question was “what if the musical practices that we encounter and that we want to transmit cannot fit neatly into presentational forms or recordings?” Then we need to have a much different set of methods than those borrowed from typical musical education (aimed at presentation), stage performance, and recording (yes, even ethnomusicological field recording). Figuring out what those methods might be was the topic of the conversation I wanted to have with my colleagues at NTTU

Provisionally, I isolated a method for research and transmission that focuses on what Bruno Latour has called “immutable mobiles.” According to Latour (1987), immutable mobiles are features of a set of knowledge or practices that can be moved from place to place (mobile) without too much deformation (immutable). These immutable mobiles might be features of performance practices that practitioners can readily reproduce in non-native contexts—important for a diasporic community such as Taiwanese indigenous people. They support the practice as a participatory form, so that the practice itself can continue without too much deformation (presentational musics have their immutable mobiles, too, though: think of symphony halls or scores). In other words, the immutable mobiles allow the practice to happen outside of its original location. The preservation of traditional musics could begin from immutable mobiles and not musical objects such as recordings or transcription, which are then fed into a system of musical pedagogy alien to the practice. What is most important is that the immutable mobiles be those that already sustain the practices, which means that preservation requires considerable ethnographic work. These immutable mobiles may include spatial layouts, pedagogical practices, or forms of material culture associated with the practices. Finding these features and figuring out just how to move them could give focus to those working to maintain traditional musical practices. For Sacred Harp singing, of course, these immutable mobiles include features such as the “hollow square” (See Miller)

In subsequent conversation about the problems presented in the talk, one of the students at NTTU noted a second problem: how can work proceed when the need for larger communities to support the musical practices conflicts with the local variation of these practices from village to village? Interestingly, this problem connects to the subject of some of my earlier work on ritual: complicity. Complicity refers to a kind of ethical condition where those involved in a practice, such as singing traditional ‘Amis music, actively bracket out certain values (here they might be adherence to a specific kind of ornamentation or variation and even a set of ethical, non-musical values) in order to cultivate the internal goods of a practice (which include both musical and non-musical values). The reasons to bracket out these values or to externalize them often bear on how communities of practice form. Values often externalized, like particular kinds of ornamentation or particularlist political agendas, could rend the fabric of friendships or kinship through which the community of practice represents itself. Although complicity is not limited to musical practices, it has bearing on them, particularly in diaspora. For musical transmission, the real problem seems to be how to develop a protocol surrounding types of complicity needed to maintain the practice, particularly when it moves beyond its original location. Thus complicity and immutable mobiles seem closely related

So far, I’ve laid out (1) immutable mobiles and (2) complicity as necessary features for work in musical preservation / transmission. I would argue that the formation of these two features situates what we might refer to as musical objects such as recordings, and recently I’ve been working collaboratively with a recording studio in A’tolan on this issue. Borrowing from my observations and those of Kiri Miller of the use of recordings among Sacred Harp singers, we have been thinking about the various roles that recordings could play in transmission of indigenous musics if we were able differently to produce and listen to them

I want to encourage conversation around these issues, so send your comments

link to NTTU talk (in Chinese)