April 2, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 13

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    The Meaning of Music

    To ethnomusicologist Bohlman, it represents who we are

    By Shula Neuman
    News Office

    Mention bluegrass music, and the image of a particular type of person and a specific geographical area may come to mind. Likewise, discussing blues or Tejano music conjures up entirely different images of the kinds of people who play that music, where they live and what their music means to them.

    Philip Bohlman, Associate Professor in Music, has dedicated his career to studying the significance of the music of various ethnic groups across the globe. He recently was awarded the Dent Medal, presented by Britain's Royal Musical Association, in honor of his lifetime contribution to the field of musicology. He is the first ethnomusicologist to win the award.

    As one of the first scholars to pursue ethnomusicology at Chicago -- he was hired in 1987 to establish an ethnomusicology program here -- Bohlman's contributions have ranged from studies of specific ethnic and geographical groups to an examination of the historiography of ethnomusicology.

    Much of his work has focused on the music of Israel, where he spent two years studying the impact of Central European immigrant culture on Israeli music.

    "I initially became interested in Israel because it was a laboratory," Bohlman said. "It is a country where there are enormous differences -- it has Western classical music and traditional Sephardic ballads from the Iberian peninsula. It has avant-garde composers and music from Yemenite Jews that some imagine to have survived from a time before the first temple. All of that within a small space. You have that history of enormous differences, yet it all occurred in the moment in which a culture was forged in the 20th century."

    While in Israel, Bohlman broke new ground in ethnomusicology with his studies of the classical music that evolved there.

    "I studied the immigrant communities from Central Europe, countries where Jews spoke German and vernacular derivations of German. What was distinctive about this study was that the music of these immigrant communities was a kind of classical music, not folk music. They had used the art tradition of music to participate in their own emancipation and in the creation of their own identity. I look at their use of music as a question of identity building. This music was used to create and construct an identity -- literally, the identity of a modern nation-state."

    Ethnomusicologists have long been contemplating the relationship between everyday life and identity and folk music -- music that emerges organically from the people. But to examine the impact of classical music -- music traditionally considered to be the realm of the educated and elite -- on the actions of everyday life and on everyday people was a unique connection. Bohlman's work on the music of Israel created a place for scholars to reconsider the function of classical music in everyday life.

    "It brings up a set of historical questions," Bohlman said. "For example, classical music had been considered by many scholars to be music that did not give local and national identity. It had been considered absolute music -- music whose meaning was its own. At the turn of the century in Central Europe, we suddenly have a tradition where the trends in modernism, which were being defined by Jews such as Mahler and Schoenberg, actually brought about social transformations into society.

    "There were large orchestras in Central Europe that were composed largely of Jews," he explained. "It was precisely those institutions that allowed this immigrant community to establish itself in Israel. The orchestra became one of Jewish cultural association because it was forced on the Jews by the Nazis. The Jews brought that to Israel and it became the basis for the Israeli Philharmonic. Overnight, they were able to make this orchestra."

    Although still interested in Israeli and Jewish music, Bohlman's interests have expanded to include other kinds of Central European music as well. Bohlman has studied the liturgical and folk music of pilgrims in Central Europe and how their music has influenced the reconfiguration of borders in Central and Eastern Europe. Another branch of Bohlman's work has included studying Klezmer music in Europe and the resurgence of interest in that style of music.

    He also recently moved beyond the music of Europe into a new realm as co-editor of the book Music and the Racial Imagination, scheduled for publication later this year. The book, which includes articles by Sander Gilman, Professor and Chairman of Germanic Studies, and Katie Trumpener, Associate Professor in Germanic Studies, looks at the way music influences ideas about race.

    Perhaps the most far-reaching aspect of Bohlman's work is his contribution to the historiography of ethnomusicology. In two separate co-edited works, Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology (1991) and Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons (1992), Bohlman, along with contributing authors, examines the nature of musical scholarship and its evolution over time.

    "My work is about the question of representation," Bohlman said. "What does music really mean? In ethnomusicology, when someone gets a recording of something from Africa or from Appalachia, how do we understand what its meanings are? There are those who believe that music represents nothing other than itself. I argue that we are constantly giving it new and different abilities to represent who we are."