Discovery of ethnomusicology; fieldwork in Bulgaria; University of Toronto; Ethnomusicology

Q. Tell us how you discovered ethnomusicology, your fieldwork in Bulgaria, and professional employment before UCLA.

A. Well, I suppose the seeds of my career as an ethnomusicologist really began with my enjoyment of music as a child. But in terms of encountering the field of ethnomusicology, I encountered it through an extracurricular activity when I was a college student. It was called “international folk dancing.”  I just fell in love with that as an activity and every Sunday night couldn't wait to go to the dance and dance these dances where “international” really meant Eastern European or Southeastern European with a little bit of Israeli dancing and couple dancing from Scandinavian countries thrown in. It was totally fascinating to me. One of my friends in that group told me that at Wesleyan University there was going to be a guy coming the following year who would teach Greek clarinet, and teach people to speak Greek, and take people on a field trip to Greece, and I thought, "That sounds really interesting," because I played the clarinet and I was learning to play this Balkan music that we were dancing to. So I went up to Wesleyan University and they showed me a gamelan and a whole set of African drums and I said, "What is this?" and they said, "It's ethnomusicology." And I said, "I don't know what that is but that's what I want to do."   So then, I went off to the University of Washington where I had grown up and gone to high school, near Seattle. It turned out they had a program in ethnomusicology. In those days, the late 60s, there were only seven graduate programs in ethnomusicology in the United States and one of them happened to be in my hometown. So I started there in 1968, determined to go off and study music in Bulgaria, which I discovered through the dances. So I did that. I wrote a dissertation on Bulgarian polyphonic singing which is very interesting because it uses intervals of seconds, rather than intervals of thirds, which we're used to in the West, and I just thought it was a fascinating sound. My first job was at the University of Toronto, in their school of music there.

Q. What year was that?

A.   I went there in 1974, even before I finished my Ph.D. I was hired ABD, “all but dissertation,” as they say.  I finished my dissertation in 1977. It was a very good experience because they expected me to teach not only courses in world music, which ethnomusicologists are trained to do, but in European classical music as well.  That was a very important part of my formation as an intellectual and as an ethnomusicologist. I taught there for thirteen years—from '74 to '87. And in the middle of that period, I got a call from the president of the Society for Ethnomusicology, asking me if I would like to become the editor of the journal Ethnomusicology. I was amazed in the first instance and of course instantly accepted what was really a terrific honor. He called me in 1980. I had finished my Ph.D only three years before. And in 1980 I published my first two articles. So I wrote to my family and friends about this honor. I said, "I'm the only person on the editorial board I’ve never heard of." So it was just a fantastic opportunity, which I think would be completely impossible today.  It is a kind of testimony to how young the field was and how few of us were in the field. I had been going to meetings of the Society of Ethnomusicology for almost ten years, so in those days I was like an old hand, even though I was very junior. One of the most important results of that was it allowed me to see ethnomusicology in the making. Because people would submit their articles and I would send them off to two referees to evaluate—experts in the topic of whatever the paper was—and they'd write back to me with their evaluations, and it was just very interesting to see what they said about it and to see how they positioned it in the field of ethnomusicology. Sometimes they would write back and say, "Well, this is not ethnomusicology."  And in those days, none of us actually knew what ethnomusicology was, so for someone to say what it was not actually got me thinking.  After that, all these ideas I had gotten from being the journal editor rattled around in my mind, and in 1987, thirty years ago, I published an article called "Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology," which was my first salvo, as it were, in writing about the field of ethnomusicology as a discipline. So since that time I've mainly written about Bulgarian music. I wrote a monograph on Bulgarian music in 1994 called May it Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music. Every once in a while I would write a paper on the field of ethnomusicology. I'd written about eight of them when I decided it might be worth collecting them into a volume and that was just published this year.

NEXT set of interview questions          RETURN to interview main page