Founded in the aftermath of World War II, the International Folk Music Council (now the International Council for Traditional Music) was a diverse group of scholars, musicians, and enthusiasts united toward an urgent goal: the preservation and revival of the world’s rapidly disappearing musical traditions. But beyond this general common cause, its members differed widely on many topics—not least, on the very definition of folk music.
Beginning with the IFMC’s first conference in 1948, where the German musicologist Walter Wiora discussed the distinction between Kategorie (category) and Wertidee (inspiring ideal), several of the Council’s members—most notably the English folklorist Maud Karpeles—debated the meanings of such terms as folk and the all-important qualifier authentic. The questions that were raised illuminate the beginnings of ethnomusicology and resonate with some of the current issues in the field.
Above, members of the IFMC at their meeting in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1950. Front and center: the Bengali poet and folklorist Jasīmauddīna, the U.S. ethnomusicologist George Herzog, and Dr. Karpeles.
As ethnomusicology increasingly engages the topic of genre viability, the rhetoric used to characterize the issues must be carefully considered.
Parallel concerns in the field of linguistics have long involved the term language endangerment, and some linguists have argued for the use of more uncomfortable terms—language death, language murder, language genocide, and even language suicide—in an effort to convey strong messages about the agency and urgency of particular situations.
The current focus of some ethnomusicologists on ecological concepts such as sustainability is encouraging, but few scholars are bold enough to use more violent rhetoric when it is justified.
Above, Master-musician Sok Duck, 87 years old and one of the very few artists to survive the Khmer Rouge regime, continues to make efforts to pass on his skills to younger-generation Cambodians; below, the video for the SoundFutures research project draws on the ecosystem metaphor to argue for the need to support music sustainability.
Although the notion of pitches being relatively high or low was well-established by the first century C.E., when Pliny used the terms summus, medius, and imus, there is no evidence that earlier Greek theorists espoused this metaphor. The terms νήτη (nētē, “down-located”) and ὑπάτη (hypatē, “up-located”) were used, but they referred to the physical placement of kithara strings, not to a spatial concept of pitch; in fact, the higher the pitch in our terms, the further down-located it was on the instrument.
The commonest adjectives for pitch in ancient Greek writings are ὀξύς (oxys, “sharp, piercing”) and βαρύς (barys, “heavy”). Ptolemy wrote that the former quality was a result of λεπτότης (leptotēs, “fineness”) and πυκνότης (pyknotēs, “close spacing [of notes]”, and that the latter was caused by μανότης (manotēs, “thickness”) and παχύτης ( pachytēs, “loose spacing”) . The idea of higher and lower sounds, and their eventual depiction as such in notation, was a later development.
This according to “The development of vertical direction in the spatial representation of sound” by Eleonora Rocconi, an essay included in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung: Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien (Rahden: Leidorf, 2002), pp. 389–392.
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