A Home at Disciplinary Margins: Reflections of an Ethno/Musicologist from Elsewhere

Gavin Lee is Assistant Professor at Soochow University School of Music in China. He completed his doctoral studies at Duke University on avant-garde music in Singapore, and his core research interests include postcolonial theory, affect theory, queer theory, global modernity and modernism, and the Sinophone world. Lee’s research is published in Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Music Analysis (forthcoming), and in his edited volume, Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music (Routledge 2018).


It was not always obvious to me that I was going to able reach the point where I am in my scholarly trajectory. I have spent the past few years developing my dissertation, which focused on avant-garde music in Singapore, into a monograph project that conducts a comparative study of the contemporary music scene in Singapore and China, exploring the core issues of globalization, modernity, race, and musical hybridity. Framed using concepts drawn from the writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the project allows me to do the kind of deeply committed intellectual work I love best. I am lucky in that my position at Soochow University (Suzhou, China) allows me access to research materials such as musical scores of contemporary Chinese avant-garde composers (thus allowing me to expand beyond my dissertation work on Singapore), as well as the time to conduct interviews and ethnography in the city of Suzhou.

An early version of my book project, which was closely related to my dissertation on Singaporean avant-gardism (and did not touch on China), sparked the interest of the music editor of a highly prestigious British university press, but was ultimately rejected because it was deemed to have too small of a market of interested readers. This was possibly because the vast majority of the music publications of the press focus on Western art music, which is conceptually organized around North America and Europe, as well as composers from those milieus. The creation of Western art music (WAM) so far outside of the Western heartland was possibly considered to be of little interest to the musicological public, not to mention the general public. (Examples of non-Western WAM include works such the Yellow River piano concerto, which is in the style of common practice era music, as well as avant-garde music, by e.g. Tan Dun’s contemporaries in China, such as Ye Xiaogang.)

At many turns, I’ve faced this kind of disciplinary rejection from musicology. I’ve enquired about a job position for Western music, and received a polite reply that my specialty in Western music in Asia is not considered to be appropriate for the position. I’ve been informed by a journal editor that I might publish my work in the home country of the composer I write about, where there might be more interest in the music I discuss. I’ve gone through arduous editorial revisions where readers emphasized the methodological import of my articles (framed using Deleuzian ideas) to the extent of completely overshadowing the actual composer and music being discussed. This is a situation which I find highly questionable: Can we really leave vast swaths of the e.g. racist or orientalist repertoire unstudied once musical academia decides that its time to move on to a more innovative paradigm?

Outside the musicological world, I have not found a home in ethnomusicology with ease, even if my research interests in Singapore and China would appear to be in accord with the usual non-Western geographical ambit of ethnomusicology. Further complicating the issue is the problematic social ascription of appropriate research areas to me based on my Chinese ethnicity, such that my research and I are either “too Chinese” or “not Chinese enough.” Conventional assumptions were evident when I described my research interests in the Western art music of Singapore and China to one of the top musicologists in the field, and he queried, “That’s ethnomusicology, isn’t it?” But how many articles on global (Japanese, Egyptian etc.) composers in the genre of Western art music have you seen in the journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)? Not so long ago, I heard a member of the top leadership of SEM declare that “we” must continue to push back against Western art music. It would appear that composers like Ye Xiaogang in China or Joyce Koh in Singapore are positioned at the margins of legitimate ethnomusicological research at best. Even when my research papers are located safely within the boundaries of conventional ethnomusicological concerns, such as Chinese audiences’s global imagination, I am faced with another wall between the vast majority of researchers on the music scene in China versus the handful of researchers on Singapore (a Chinese-majority nation in Southeast Asia). I have had my knowledge of Chinese music “tested” on one occasion, when I politely recited my Chinese music syllabus to my interlocutor. I’ve been called laowai in China, a derogatory term normally used for white Westerners, which applies to me because the literal meaning is “foreigner.”

Ethno/musicological tensions aside, my work on music analysis of avant-garde music from Singapore has led to various forms of rejection from musicology and ethnomusicology. A musicology journal found that the extended music analysis in my article does not fit with its state mission. Some ethnomusicologists see me as “the theorist.” On the plus side of things, I am sometimes seen as versatile: I was a job candidate for a position that required the teaching of courses in ethnomusicology and music theory, and have taught anything from music aesthetics and Schubert’s Lieder, to Chinese opera and musical globalization, to form and analysis in my current position. At other times, however, I am pressured to “Pick one!” among musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory. I’ve been questioned on the level of expertise I can develop across such a varied range of topics, each with its dedicated literature. (“Well, you’re going do it by working really hard!”—was the response from an encouraging colleague.) Is it so difficult to conceive of research in a particular soundscape, such as that of the global Sinophone world of Singapore and China, as requiring a multitude of methodologies including historiography, ethnography, music theory, hermeneutics, and philosophy? Complicating the problem of my scholarly marginality are troubling interpersonal issues. How do I deal with the inevitable awkwardness with North American colleagues who are on the most part unfailingly polite but for whom my otherness renders me somehow beyond the boundaries of natural camaraderie? Or am I just paranoid? I’ll never know for sure.

Working at the site of disciplinary boundaries means that I’ve had to make a home of my own at the margins, cobbling together willing colleagues from multiple disciplines to form support networks and platforms for interdisciplinary intervention. In the past 4 years, I’ve collaborated with 50 scholars across musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory in conferences and conference panels that I organized. At a broader scale, I’m heartened by evidence of society-wide and cross-society disciplinary realignments among the major scholarly organizations. There is an emerging global consciousness within both the American Musicological Society (AMS) and Society for Music Theory (SMT), which makes me hopeful that in the future, researchers who study the history and theory of Western art music from the non-West, or even all genres of traditional and popular music around the globe, may find a home within these societies. The recent founding of the SMT Analytical Approaches to World Music interest group and SMT Global New Music interest group (of which I am co-chair) are promising, as are the existence of the Ibero-American and Jewish Studies groups of AMS and plans for the formation of the AMS Global East Asian Music study group. Ethnomusicologists are establishing alliances across music societies, as seen in the activities of the SEM chapter of the research group on Analytical Approaches to World Music, as well as cross-society collaboration in the Race-ing Queer Music Scholarship symposium of 2016 among the LGBTQ groups of AMS, SEM and SMT. I have been inspired by scholars who have led the way in conducting research that reconfigures dominant paradigms by crisscrossing the music disciplines—a partial list includes Lawrence Kramer (hermeneutic windows that are located at structural pressure points), Fred Everett Maus (explication of music theory practices in terms of sexuality), Georgina Born (ethnography of IRCAM), Michael Tenzer (theory and analysis of gamelan music), Jonathan McCollum (historical ethnomusicology), Reinhard Strohm (global music history), and Barbara Mittler (“global new music”[1]). I believe that musicology and ethnomusicology are at the cusp of an imminent convergence due to the critical mass of interdisciplinary research that is about to burst the disciplinary levees, much as musicology and music theory became intertwined in what was known as New Musicology in the 1990s.

I continue to ponder the disciplinary investments of vast swaths of musical academia. These rigidly fixed boundaries and attendant gate-keeping have been devastatingly at times, but also energizing at others. I’m one of those people who want to do something all the more if you say it can’t be done. Living at research interstices has meant that I’ve had to smoothen virtually every single surface I have come into contact with using conceptual saw files. In the endeavor of crafting a personal space, I was lucky in that I found a job position in China and developed research interests in the music scene here, because I think it is quite possible that “Singaporean avant-gardism” would have remained at best insignificant to many people—and, at worst, incomprehensible. There are certain phrases which still have not quite clicked into place academically: “Western art music composers in the non-West,” “theory and analysis of non-Western music,” “Singaporean music”—is “Singaporean” an ethnicity? (It’s not. Singapore is an island-nation in Islamic Southeast Asia, with a Chinese majority and large Malay and Indian minority groups.) In this context, I have enjoyed the advantage of being able to utilize the heavy rhetorical and material weight of China in the context of the comparative work that I’m doing on Singapore and the Chinese city of Suzhou. I also lovingly remember the multiple interdisciplinary platforms that I’ve built for myself, across Chinese music studies, global music history, global avant-gardism, queer studies, and affect theory, and the hard work that I’ve done developing expertise in a multitude of fields because I had to.

To you, the reader, I would make the case that each of us should stop saying “This is not musicology,” “This is not ethnomusicology,” or “This is not music theory,” and instead embrace a multitude of methodologies and musical genres. I’m suggesting that we remember the criticisms of each discipline that has been made in the past while moving forward in an interdisciplinary fashion that preserves the insights afforded by each methodology, whether we are examining archives, sounds, or social worlds. It is possibly by engaging everything that we might best avoid the trappings of each discipline, trappings that have been variously described as “elitist,” “formalist,” or “too focused on the contemporary and on small-scale communities.” Let’s see where this will take us.

[1] See my post on “Global New Music: From Avant-Garde to Rock, Korea to Estonia,” Musicology Now, Februrary 6, 2018.



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