Thursday, December 3, 2009

Belated Reflections on Philadelphia

I was delighted to see so many papers on topics related to music and the Cold War at this year’s AMS meeting—far more, it seemed to me—than in previous years. In addition to the Cold War and Music Study Group panel, there was a full session dedicated to “Reds.” Also scattered throughout the program were papers dealing with themes at least indirectly related to Cold War culture: postmodernism, musical borrowing and appropriation, film music, opera, and American experimental music. And even if they did not deal with the Cold War (directly or indirectly), a number of other presentations examined music written and performed during the Cold War period.

I confess: at times I need to remind myself not to equate post-1945 topics with Cold War topics. Nonetheless, is it possible to draw a meaningful distinction between studying “the Cold War and Music” and simply music that happened to be composed or performed during the Cold War? Indeed, the Cold War and Music Study Group has defined its work quite generally; according to its original mission statement (found on its original website),

Topics that fall under the rubric of the “Cold War and Music” include, but are not limited to: music composed under the encouragement of governmental or non-governmental agencies that explicitly engaged with the ideological issues of the Cold War… musical styles that tacitly or implicitly engaged with the social, political, or economic issues of the Cold War… as well as music that was produced outside of either the United States or the U.S.S.R., but was nonetheless involved with political or social issues emanating from those superpowers… Music both “high” and “low,” “art” and “popular,” “cultivated” and “vernacular,” is open to discussion. The period of the Cold War is generally considered to extend from 1945-1991, though material from either the pre-Cold War or post-Cold War period that engages with the central issues of the Cold War and the arts is welcome. Issues of aesthetics, signification, representation, politics, economics, historiography, and biography are only some of the possible avenues for further discussion and research, while a wide range of methodologies are encouraged, including musical analysis, archival research, and hermeneutic, ethnomusicological, and oral-historical approaches.

In light of this rather broad definition of the “Cold War and Music,” it should not be surprising that most recent research has focused more on the what of Cold War music than the how of research methodologies. The diversity of Cold War research was in part what inspired this year’s topic for the Cold War and Music Study Group panel, “Music Historiography in Cold War Contexts.” The principal aim of the panel was to offer a forum for discussing the broader historiographical, methodological, and ethical issues that scholars on Cold War music face. Over the course of the session, a number of general themes and questions emerged:

1. Most Cold War scholarship linking music with the global political climate has focused on the U.S./Soviet polarity. Tamara Levitz questioned this model at the CWMSG session two years ago, and the matter emerged again at this year’s panel. As Heather Wiebe pointed out in her presentation, less attention has been paid to the relationship between post-1945 musical development and the decline of British (and, I would add, French) imperialism. What implications does this more complicated international picture have for musicological research on both the developed and developing world?

2. Lee Bidgood, Wiebe, Elaine Kelly, and Hon-Lun Yang all discussed various forms of musical appropriation and resignification: Czech bluegrass, Benjamin Britten’s interest in Asian music, canonic reception in the GDR, and the celebration of western classical masters in China. (Lisa Jakelski and Beate Kutschke examined similar issues in the session “Looking Forward, Looking Back.”) What connections, if any, might exist between the appropriation of the foreign and the appropriation of the past (real or imagined)? How might we balance an inquiry into the general phenomenon of postwar musical borrowing with an approach that situates borrowing practices within a specific political, cultural, and even biographical context?

3. Marcus Zagorski argued that serial and post-serial composers shared a belief in an objective dictate of musical progress, in which “the objective dictate of historical progress, which was not determined by human actions but, rather, determined human actions.” How does this Geist compare with narratives of musical progress in the Eastern Bloc? How do the obvious political and philosophical differences between East and West complicate any similarities we might find? Might such similarities serve as reminder of a shared intellectual history prior to 1945?

4. The Cold War is recent enough that many of the people we study are still alive. How do we balance archival work with musical study, ethnography with historiography? Although many individual musicologists have already integrated oral histories into their research, there has been little open discussion of these methodologies or their implications for scholarship—at least to the extent that ethnomusicologists and anthropologists have dealt with these issues in recent decades. Yet determining the relationships between Cold War scholarship and Cold War survivors is one of our most urgent tasks, particularly as the ranks of living witnesses dwindle by the day. As Amy Wlodarski noted during the discussion period, Cold War scholars would do well to look to studies of the Holocaust, which have examined similar questions of memory, narrative, and trauma.

5. How do we define “Cold War” music—and, by extension, Cold War musicology? Could this label apply to any aspect of musical composition, performance, reception, patronage, etc. between 1945 and the early 1990s? Is it possible (and even desirable) to study music that was written during the Cold War while sidestepping the Cold War context? While an overly simplified model that ties everything back to Cold War politics is obviously to be avoided, it seems to me that a constant awareness of the Cold War context is necessary—even in topics that seem less overtly “political.” After all, it wasn’t until the 1990s that musicologists have generally acknowledged the political subtexts of supposedly apolitical modernism.

6. Finally, to what extent do lingering Cold War anxieties continue to influence current research directions—indeed, is this unavoidable?

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