H. Liebersohn: Music and the New Global Culture

Music and the New Global Culture. From the Great Exhibitions to the Jazz Age

Liebersohn, Harry
Big Issues in Music
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Bob van der Linden, Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, University of Amsterdam

Music is deeply embedded in societies worldwide and formative to their construction, negotiation and transformation in terms of consensus and conflict. Yet, global music history has appeared only recently as an important field for study. Its late arrival had undeniably to do with the fact that it requires knowledge of both history and music, preferably also of the non-Western kind. In some ways, music (that is to say, the use of scales, tuning systems, playing techniques, instruments etc.) may advance our knowledge of globalization more than any other medium. Harry Liebersohn subscribes to this point of view, as he states in his latest book that „[n]owhere was the transformation of [the new global] culture more sudden than in music“ (p. 2). Concerning the trajectory of that transformation, he settles for a middle position: „There is no uniform answer to the question of whether it added up to homogenization or diversity [in music]“ (p. 4).

Liebersohn approaches the emergence of a global music culture by studying the intellectual history of „comparative musicology“ (as the academic discipline of „ethnomusicology“ was called before the Dutchman Jaap Kunst coined the latter term in 1950) and, closely related, the early history of the commercial „world music“ recording industry. He takes the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, which lay the basis for the South Kensington Museum – Victoria and Albert Museum since 1899 – as the starting point of the emergence of a new global music culture. During the „Age of the Great Exhibitions“, millions of Westerners learned numerous „exotic“ things about the non-Western world. Furthermore, they often for the first time heard the „noisy“ and „primitive“ music from distant places. The book ends in the „Jazz Age“ (1920s), when popular music genres like tango and jazz thrived around the world. According to Liebersohn, these genres were the result of „the new global culture“ that is still with us today. It had emerged through three, repeatedly overlapping, processes: „a growing understanding of non-European forms of music, a worldwide dissemination of records, and a democratization of musical genres“ (p. 254).

Music and the New Global Culture is divided into three parts, entitled „Craft“, „Science“ and „Commerce“. These three approaches to music, Liebersohn argues, had their geographical center in „Britain“, „Germany“ and the „United States“ respectively. In part one, he describes the collaboration between Carl Engel and A. J. Hipkins, who both, in line with the Arts and Craft Movement, much appreciated the craftsmanship of (historic) musical instruments worldwide. Following his interest in European folk music, Carl Engel wrote about non-Western music, first in The Music of the Most Ancient Nations (1864). Overall, he challenged the idea of the „naturalness“ of the Western diatonic scale, as expressed in Western „classical“ music, through comparison with scales used in both European folk music and non-Western music, which he simultaneously believed were on the way to extinction and therefore had to be salvaged for humanity. After his death, most of his extensive collection of rare musical instruments from all over the world ended up in the South Kensington Museum, with which he had been connected for many years. The renowned ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood (a student of Jaap Kunst) called A. J Hipkins „the Father of Modern Ethnomusicology“ because he opened new ways for cross-cultural understanding through his meticulous analysis of musical instruments and their tuning systems. In this context, he also wrote an introduction to the „classic“ The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India (1891) by his friend Charles R. Day.

Part two („Science“) opens with a discussion of the alliance between Hipkins and Alexander Ellis, whose revolutionary research on the global diversity of scales questioned the assumption of the superiority of Western music as the end of an evolutionary trajectory from „primitive“ to „complex“. In doing so, Liebersohn argues, Ellis stood on the shoulders of Hermann Helmholtz, whose On the Sensations of Tone (1863) he translated from German into English. Consecutively, in 1900, Carl Stumpf created the first archive of „world music“, the Phonogram Archive in Berlin. In his footsteps and, of course, through the now possible analysis of phonograph recordings, amongst others, Guido Adler, Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs further opened Western ears to music worldwide. In the third part („Commerce“), Liebersohn turns to the early history of the globally competitive gramophone music industry, mainly by looking at the careers of Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner (the inventor of the gramophone record and founder of the Gramophone Company, Deutsche Grammophon, Victor Talking Machine Company etc.) and Fred Gaisberg (who perpetually travelled the world for Gramophone scouting local „talent“). Here, he assumes that the global music industry created musical „freedom“ for non-Western participants (p. 262). In contrast, however, Karl Hagstrom Miller in his influential work on the early record industry underlines how the „local music paradigm“ adopted by entrepreneurs like Berliner and Gaisberg „reinforced the superiority of the West, the divide between primitivism and civilization, and the Western tendency to hear foreign sounds through the prism of exoticism.“1

Those with an interest in the intellectual history of ethnomusicology are familiar with the achievements of both the discipline’s „founding fathers“ and the pioneers of the global recording industry discussed. Yet, they and other readers will enjoy Liebersohn’s engagingly written narrative about this colorful Anglophone-German bunch of (amateur) scholars and music businessmen. His discussion of music and the worlds of „Craft“, „Science“ and „Commerce“ as part of one cultural configuration surely is a welcome addition to the field. Nonetheless, I am less convinced by his indecisive answer to the question of whether the new global music culture spelled homogenization or diversity. For, did Engel and Hipkins, who were no doubt dissatisfied with the growing homogenization in music and craftmanship of their times, and likewise the members of the Arts and Craft Movement, as well as the collectors, musicologists and anthropologists who wanted to „salvage“ folk / non-Western music before their extinction, not have a point? As a matter of fact, European equal temperament tuning had spread around the world (first through the guitar) already for a few centuries and had made music more similar.2 No doubt, the popular music genres (tango, jazz etc.), which Liebersohn sees as „democratic“ and „cross-cultural“ and, therefore, characteristic of „the new global culture“, were a result of this process of homogenization. Likewise, he writes: „Beyond its European focus, this book follows the dialectical relationship between non-Western and Western cultures“ (p. 5). Even so, I would argue that it does not fully acknowledge how, as part of „the new global culture“, the remaking of non-Western (national) music traditions through modern reforms to different extents resulted in a standardization of musical performance through, among other things, equal temperament tuning, choice of repertoire and instruments, and recordings. In general, such institutionalizations, as well as for example the transfer from private performances (at courts, temples etc.) to public concerts, led to the marginalization, if not disappearance, of numerous local music traditions.3

In sum, Liebersohn deserves praise for bringing music to the attention of historians as a crucial topic for the understanding of the global age in a readable manner, but his optimistic take on globalization may appear Western-centered to some readers.

1 Karl Hagstrom Miller, Talking Machine World. Selling the Local in the Global Music Industry, 1900–20, in: A.G. Hopkins (ed.), Global History: Interactions Between the Universal and Local, Basingstoke 2006, p. 183.
2 See for instance: James A. Millward, Chordophone Culture in Two Early Modern Societies. A Pipa-Vihuele Duet, in: Journal of World History 23 (2012), pp. 237–278.
3 For the Indian case, see my chapter: Rhythms of the Raj: Music in Colonial South Asia, in: Harald Fischer-Tiné / Maria Framke (eds.), Routledge Handbook of the History of Colonialism in South Asia, London 2021, pp. 373–385.

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