thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

sensual objects:

"musical instrument" as a type of human/non-human relationship

p. allen roda (nyu)


Once I learned from Dennis Havlena’s web site (Havlena 2007) that “ready made didgeridoos” were for sale at Kmart for 97 cents in the sporting goods department where they are called “golf club sheaths”, I set out immediately to find one – and indeed found one in my late grandfather’s set of golf clubs in my parents’ basement. (Instrument is played.) Now it is a didgeridoo.

I want you to think about the significance of this event.  What does it mean for me, a white male representative of the Academy here at a conference to proclaim “this is a didgeridoo.”  What power relationships are being enacted?  Who agrees with my proclamation? Who disagrees? Who might contest my authority to define didgeridoos in this fashion? How did this object and I come to relate to each other in this particular way?  Why do I not call it a mini-alphorn, lur, trombita, or von Hornbostel-Sachs # 423.121.12?  If I leave this on a train accidentally and someone else finds it, what will it be for them?  How might it affect them?  How might it change if I ceremoniously present it to a future grandchild or encase it in glass at a prestigious institution?  Has the object itself changed now that I have used it in a different way?  Does an object depend on its relationships to humans and/or other objects to confirm what it is?  Nicholas Thomas writes that “objects are not what they are made to be, but what they have become” (1991:4).  The question is then left open as to how objects become what they are – perhaps through their relationships?

Bruno Latour might argue that an object is nothing but its relations – in which case once a new relationship is established the object itself is fundamentally and irreversibly changed.  The gun in the hands of a citizen becomes a citizen-gun.  Plastic tube becomes golf club sheath becomes didgeridoo and all of these are inherently different.  Conversely, Graham Harman (building from Heidegger) might assert that the thing in itself is inexhaustible and inaccessible.  We may perceive differences, but those are objects of perception, not the object itself.  So the plastic tube, the golf club sheath, and the didgeridoo are all different sensual objects in that they appear to our senses differently, but the thing “in itself” has an essential unity that we cannot ever fully grasp.  Yet at the same time, all of these sensual objects are inextricably linked to the physical object. Fittingly for this discussion, Harman calls these sensual objects “notes”.  Any one physical object can have many potentially different sensual objects depending on how it is perceived.  Indeed it is not the instrument itself that we play, but some particular combination of its notes.  Furthermore, it is not even the object itself that can be thought to afford certain behaviors, but rather its notes.  This golf tube only affords didgeridoo playing because of my knowledge of didgeridoo playing enables me to perceive that particular note.  I am sure this object has countless other notes to which I am completely oblivious.  For Harman, then, there is no question of whether it is a golf tube or a didigeridoo – it is both, and probably numerous other things as well.

What does it mean, then, to say “this is a musical instrument.”  I will even go so far as to proffer a definition:  Musical instruments are vibrating bodies whose primary purpose is to produce sound perceivable to the human ear.  There is slippage here in terms of “primary purpose” in that alarm clocks and refrigerators vibrate and make sound, but their “primary purposes” are to wake me up and cool my food.  They can become musical instruments, when used that way, but the objects “themselves” are not inherently musical.  The category, musical instrument, then is not a category of objects “in themselves” but rather of “sensual objects” to use Harman’s terminology or “relationships” to use Latour’s.  I would argue that in the absence of humans, there are no musical instruments – only objects.  Ani Di Franco said “everything is a weapon if you use it right.”  I say everything’s an instrument – if you use it musically.

The question then is not “what is a musical instrument?” but rather, “what makes an instrument musical?”  That is to say how do we differentiate between the beer bottle discarded in a recycling bin from the beer bottle used as both a bell and a flute in an avant garde composition?  Some objects are designed or “scripted” for a specific type of behavior – sound production, while the sound producing potential latent in all objects can be “discovered” or “activated” when humans interact with those objects musically.  In both cases, what makes an instrument musical is the way in which humans interact with it whether scripted for that behavior or not.  In this sense, the term “musical instrument” implies a particular type of interaction between human and non-human – a type of relationship that is complex and distinct from other human/non-human relationships.  In fact, there are multiple human-instrument relationships of which I shall address three.

the sonic relationship - listening

Sound itself is an interesting object created by human/instrument interaction whose material qualities – vibrations – are able to emanate in multiple directions simultaneously.  Sound fills and creates spaces.  It penetrates bodies and walls alike.  It is even used medicinally in the “international national new age” practices of didgeridoo healing and “drum massage.”  Raymond Carr explains the efficacy of drum massage in terms of sympathetic resonance such that he is actually “tuning” the muscles of the body.  In describing didgeridoo healing, Hans Schuldheiss says, “The didgeridoo creates a sound bubble around the client, creating a sense of well-being and relaxation” (Ellis 2005).  Patients describe these practices as opening up energy centers in their bodies to facilitate healing.  Perhaps my golf tube is “actually” or also a piece of medical equipment.

Once created, sound exists; it is perceived and often remembered.  Annette Weiner referred to this phenomenon as “hard words” in that one could not take back what one had said.  Similarly, musical sounds linger.   Some can be perceived as “wrong” while others are “right” in the context of a given performance.  Just like speech they can’t be taken back either.  The whole practice of tuning an instrument is based on training the ear to perceive subtleties of sonic differentiation and judge their correctness. These perceptions are culturally constructed and are important to the way in which music is able to communicate (Feld and Fox 1994).  For communication to occur, there must be some common frame (Feld 1984).  Music can provide this frame as our perception of sound is inseparable from listening and making associations and judgements based on previous experience (Sudnow 1979).  Every perception is as dependent on an individual’s personal experience as it is on the sonic stimulus.  We do not hear in the same way that tape recorders do, though sometimes we imagine that we do.  The sounds of musical instruments instantly invoke various connections in the ears/minds of the listeners and can often be quite powerful. The sound of musical instruments can make people laugh, cry, scream, surrender, or feel subconsciously compelled to purchase goods. These connections are related to each listener’s familiarity or lack thereof with the sound of any given musical instrument.

In many cases they are connected to particular places or cultures in the ears of listeners. Max Peter Bauman lists 59 instruments which are commonly thought to be “national icons” (Baumann 2000).  I would argue that all instruments invoke some sense of cultural significance whether it is related to a specific region, a national identity, or simply a sense of “otherness.”  I like to think of them as sonic ambassadors. Whenever an instrument travels to another country, region, or “culture” it brings with it a sonic representation of its place of origin.  For example, musical instruments are frequently brought home by tourists in an attempt to sonically invoke their tourist destination.  Some work on the global trade in tourist art exists, though it focuses primarily on visual art and the tourist “gaze” (Fitzpatrick 2005; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998, 2000; Lippard 1999; Rojek 1997; Urry 2002).  Perhaps future studies of musical instruments could present a study of the tourist “ear.”

the physical relationship – performance, pactice and discipline

Some might argue that in performance and practice the human/instrument relationship is so intimate that the distinction between them is dissolved.  Just like Latour’s citizen and gun dissolve into a “citizen gun” so my didgeridoo and I become a sort of cyborg performer creating duets between our two vibrating bodies.  When I think of playing the didgeridoo and the way in which the instrument alters and amplifies the buzzing of lips and the continuous column of breath flowing out of its orifice, it seems appropriate to think of the instrument as an extension of the player, rather than a separate entity.  For David Sudnow (1979) playing piano is just another medium for sonic expression beyond that of his vocal cords.  Scholars in many fields have found examples of intimate human/non-human interactions that blur the distinction between person and thing such as: Robert Plant Armstrong’s “works of affecting presence” which are objects that “own certain characteristics that cause them to be treated more like persons than like things” (Armstrong 1981:5); the Marxist analysis of workers as human extensions of the machines they operate; ethnographies of the South Pacific in which ritual artifacts called Malangan are treated as part of the human life cycle; the increased usage of machines to replace internal organs in modern medicine; and various theorizations of online behavior as “post human” (Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto).  I see it as impossible to avoid these types of cyborg analyses if we take seriously the notion that non-humans play an active role in musical performance.  I would go so far as to say that the “instrumentalist” is not entirely human – but partly composed of an instrument.

Not only are the player and instrument fused together in performance, but both are physically altered in the process – a topic that has sparked debate in museum organology with reference to methods of collections conservation (Fisher 2007), but needs to be addressed with regard to the effects instruments have on players.  Practicing a musical instrument shapes the player’s body through the development of certain types of dexterity and the strengthening of particular muscles in a way that resembles the active relationship humans have with sports equipment as opposed to the passive bodily shaping of desk chairs – though sometimes the postures required by certain instruments may passively shape the body as well. 

The human body is also altered in its ability to perceive subtleties of sound through increased exposure to the feedback of musical instruments.  The feedback provided by musical instruments serves many functions: it can tell us whether we are playing “the right notes” or if our instrument is “in tune”.  For Blind Gary Davis, it’s the voice of God.  The musical relationship that humans have with non-humans is unlike all other relationships in terms of its sonic interactivity and its hermeneutic flexibility.  Vladimir Jankelevitch writes that “music has broad shoulders” in the sense that it is capable of withstanding any interpretive moves that listeners apply to it.  It is in the act of listening that music acquires its significance.

There is more to learning to play an instrument, however, than just going over motions or training one’s ears.  In learning to play golf, not only do one’s arms strengthen while learning how to swing a club, one also learns to embody “appropriate behaviors” on the golf course.  Similarly, when learning to play the piano, one learns to identify oneself with a particular repertoire or style whether it is Scott Joplin, Mozart, or church hymns.  However, one also learns the fundamentals of music theory, chord progressions and cadences, major scales and the spatial orientation of intervals.  The same could be said for any theory of music with regard to any instrument.  Learning to play a musical instrument involves learning about the relationship between sounds in time.  It impacts the student and performer physically, culturally, and intellectually and creates a truly unique human/non-human relationship.   

As mentioned earlier, when instruments travel they bring with them notions and representations of their places of origin. When learning these instruments, frequently players begin to identify themselves with romanticized notions of that instrument’s place or culture of origin.  Yet those origins get filtered through the player’s individual experience and are often romanticized.  As players associate themselves with an instrument and its culture, the instrument gets associated with the players and their culture.  Through a slow, gradual process, the didgeridoo can be transformed from an “Aboriginal instrument” to a “hippy new age instrument.”  Its connection to Aboriginal Australia gets blurred by the numerous connections to both specific and generic tropes of “otherness” such as: yoga, Eastern meditation and mysticism, chakras, crystals, African drumming, and Native American shamanism.  The didgeridoo will always index Australia, but that index gets subsumed by an index of “hippy new-age culture” which consists of various appropriations of otherness and recontextualizations of material culture.

The process of recontextualization does not occur silently, however, but through discourse (Myers and McChesney 2007), as is well documented, control over discourse is power (Baumann & Briggs 1990,1992; Chakrabarty, Ngugi, Cohn, Sapir & Whorf).  Despite the obvious power differential between predominantly white, European and euro-American “new agers” and the individuals who cultural practices and musical instruments they have appropriated and romanticized, it is not just members of the hegemonic states that recontextualize musical instruments into icons of alterity or romanticized emblems of their cultural origins.

According to David Samuels in his ethnography of the Western Apache, Putting a Song on Top of It (Samuels 2004) electric guitars were not only signs of resistance (in this case resistance against being frozen in time by “traditional” ideas of what it means to be Apache), but they were also symbols of status and coveted commodities associated with Euro-American pop culture and material wealth.  The concept of the Apache themselves as a fixed identity, already recognized as problematic by Samuels and others, is no less problematic than the concept of the electric guitar as a fixed identity.  Once we establish that what an object “is” or what it becomes depends upon its “notes” and that the “notes” of any given object are dependent upon its relationship to a human or other object, thinking of any objects (let alone a musical instrument) as having some sort of stable identity becomes ludicrous.

the museological relationship – classification and display

Surprisingly, the study of musical instruments has focused on instrument collections and museums and not performance.  Subsequently, there has been a tendency to attempt an analysis of “the objects themselves” outside of any human contact, based precisely on the assumption that “musical instruments do not grow and change themselves” (Kartomi 2001).  In so doing, elaborate systems for classifying instruments have been developed along with definitions of what different types of instruments are.  On the surface, the system is in fact designed to differentiate methods of causing air to vibrate; however, more deeply it inscribes relationships that have further implications. 

Classifying musical instruments is an exercise of power through control over discourse. Despite Margaret Kartomi’s call for increased awareness of indigenous instrument classification systems, organologists still refer to the kora as a “harped lute” defining it in European terms and forging a relationship between instruments that have no historical connection.  In this case, the curators are not using metaphor to better our understanding of an object’s qualities; rather they are imposing a definition that is inherently hierarchical and privileges the European over the Non-European.  Any time an individual or group is represented by another an unequal power dynamic emerges.  As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues, there could be no “ethnographic objects” without ethnographers (1988).  Just as writing ethnography is a performance of power, so is the classification and definition of objects.

In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford (Clifford 1988) points out that displaying objects as emblematic of a group of people has a tendency to "concretize" them, to freeze them in the time and place in which those objects were made. In my opinion, not only do the people get frozen in time through their association with this particular instrument, but the instrument is frozen in time through its association with a particular group of people.  By constantly reminding the public that the accordion is a European instrument, museum organologists are actively erasing the way in which the instrument has been transformed by other groups of people throughout the world and subsequently placing value judgments on those transformations as being somehow derivative or “less authentic” than the instrument’s cultural origins.  Questions that should be more seriously addressed by musical instrument museums are: how does the act of display change the human – instrument relationship?  Can humans relate to instruments “musically” when those instruments are muted behind plexiglass?  Does the museological relationship transform these instruments into “statues of musical potential”?  How do display practices reinforce ideologies that further distinctions between groups of people with the inherent value judgments that accompany those distinctions? 

conclusions: 423.121.12

Returning now to my natural end-blown lip vibrated straight plastic aerophone with an integral mouthpiece – or golf club sheath, whatever you want to call it, I want to ask you, what types of questions will lead us towards an understanding of this object in relation to the people who encounter it?  What types of questions will help us to assemble its “notes” in a way that furthers our understanding of this object’s potential to “become?”  It is not enough to ask what the object means or what it does, we must now address what and how does the object become?  Rather than discuss its relationship to other similar objects, perhaps we could address ways in which its shape is scripted for a particular purpose, or the type of affordances provided by its form and material composition.  By adopting a language that is more general to human/non-human interactions, the study of musical instruments can delve deeper into an understanding of what it is to relate to an object musically.