Rookie Cards: An Interview with Michael Frishkopf

From time to time, Sounding Board will bring interviews with former editors and staffers of Ethnomusicology Review (née Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology). We're calling this series "Rookie Cards" and our first installment comes from Michael Frishkopf, PhD, Professor of Music, Director of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, and folkwaysAlive! Research Fellow at the University of Alberta, Canada. His research focuses on the music and sounds of Islam, the Arab world, and West Africa, as well as music and global human development through participatory action research. He has published an edited collection, Music and Media in the Arab World, produced the album Kinka: Traditional Songs from Avenorpedo, and co-produced Giving Voice to Hope: Music of Liberian Refugees. His current projects include music, sound, and architecture in the Muslim world, and deploying musical dance dramas for public health in northern Ghana. He co-edited Volume 6 (1991) of the Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology.


What prompted you to get involved with the Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology? Did you have any prior experience with academic writing and editing?

I first learned about PRE in 1987 or so from Marina Roseman, one of my professors at Tufts University, where I completed an MA in Ethnomusicology before moving to UCLA in 1989. I was impressed that UCLA had established a prestigious graduate student journal, of evident high reputation across the discipline, from coast to coast. When I arrived in Los Angeles I was already primed to participate, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to do so with issue #6, published in 1991.


What did you hope to accomplish with this issue? Were there any contemporary debates within the field that you particularly hoped to address?

The issue wasn’t deliberately thematic—we simply took over the reins, with the intent to publish the best research we could find, though implicitly I’m sure we were guided by that era’s ethnomusicological zeitgeist. However I think we succeeded to publish several unique, groundbreaking, and durable contributions, corresponding to contemporary issues or even anticipating them, including Wanda Bryant’s insightful study of musical change in Turkish music, a highly contemporary analysis of protest music at Tiananmen Square by eyewitness Valerie Samson, and probably the very first study of music-dance communications on the Internet, in its pre-World Wide Web days, by Sam Parnes, anticipating a huge wave of internet research and scholarly communication in the virtual era that was shortly to follow.

I do recall feeling that Sam’s survey was crucially important; even if it represented a mere moment in time, that moment was momentous. In my introduction to Sam’s article I think I sensed the gathering confluence of technology, society, and music in enabling virtual music communities, even if I couldn’t appreciate the full extent of its socio-musical consequences (remember that at this time most people outside of science and technology didn’t use email at all!). I wrote:

“Over the last twenty years or so, wide-area electronic computer communications networks have become increasingly accessible, primarily within universities and high-technology industry around the world. Such networks, consisting of computers interconnected by telecommunications lines and switching equipment, are designed to facilitate rapid exchange of data and the sharing of computer services. They have consequently wrought certain transformations in social communication. Perhaps the most prominent social effect of the new technology is electronic mail, a facility which delivers electronic messages from a user on one computer (or “host”) to the electronic “mailbox” of any other user at any other host in the network.

Electronic mail is distinctive for its speed (though not all networks offer immediate message delivery), for its compatibility with other computer software (electronic messages can be generated, sorted, searched, filed, duplicated, edited, and redistributed using the computer), and for its multi-addressing capability. This last feature is a critical advantage: a message can be delivered to any number of users at once, “broadcast,” as it were, to a select (or self-selecting) group(…)Thus, perhaps for the first time in history, rapid informal discussion may take place within an abstract social group defined only by mutual interests, and unconstrained by spatial proximity(… )As network access continues to expand, such a mode of communication may be expected to have increasingly revolutionary consequences, both for scholarly research and for society at large.

One can do more than hope for positive consequences. Scholars concerned to ensure that electronic mail becomes a constructive tool for research can do much to shape its future through critical examination and participation (particularly in the humanities, where the computer-network flow of information is still relatively a trickle). Those who participate also stand to benefit from the practical advantages of electronic scholarly discourse. Finally, the scholarly study of electronic mail as a communicative medium will become increasingly important to all who take the study of human communications seriously. Ethnomusicologists will likely find themselves in all three camps.”

The World Wide Web came online just a year later, in 1992, and the rest is history!


How were pieces for the journal issue solicited? Did you get as many submissions as you had hoped for?

As I recall, we distributed a call through email and posters. We received many more fine submissions than we could fit in an issue, some of them from friends and colleagues. So the anonymous peer review process proved crucial to curating with diplomatic grace.


Since you edited this issue and completed your PhD in Ethnomusicology, you have contributed numerous articles to scholarly journals and books, edited the book Music and Media in the Arab World, and served on the board at the journal Ethnomusicology among other endeavors in the print world. Did your work at the Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology prepare you for these undertakings? How? What else did you take away from the experience?

I look back on this extra-curricular experience as formative, teaching me so much about the academic process—writing, reviewing, curating, editing, copyediting, formatting, page designing, publishing—providing both technical and social skills relevant to our discipline, and enriching my graduate student life by offering new modes of interacting with peers and professors outside the classroom, especially my co-editors.  All ethnomusicology students should enjoy such an opportunity during the course of their studies – it is excellent career training for our multiple roles as researcher, editor, teacher, and supervisor.


Are there any unexpected insights you've gained about the field since editing this journal volume? How has your perspective changed?

Of course so much has changed since then, for me personally, and in the field at large. All writing soon comes to appear as if written by someone else, and the same goes—to a lesser extent — for editorial and curatorial tasks. Certainly I might have performed them differently, were I to take this role on again, knowing what I know now. But the issue reflected its time, our time, as was necessarily the case. It’s hard to gauge “progress” in the humanities and social sciences—when progress happens or at what rate, or even whether such thing is possible at all. I think to a great extent perspectives simply shift, though undoubtedly along with a slow accumulation of knowledge, ethical acumen, and critical insight. But every document can be critically read by the future, in order to contribute to a shifting scholarly context. Perhaps the biggest change ushered in by the 90s was a profusion of theory from outside our discipline.  But in the end, I feel that it is ethnographic richness—the “data”—whose value is potentially most durable, even as theoretical perspectives continue to change and diversify. My perspective on publication itself has changed too. These days, anything can be put out on the web, instantaneously, and often is. That’s good.  I’m a huge advocate of wikis, blogs, YouTube, SoundCloud, and the like. But the traditional processes of scholarly publication—judicious selecting, reviewing, editing, disseminating, and preserving—help to realize the ethnographic potential of our research most fully.


Any other anecdotes you want to share about editing the journal volume or your experiences during that time are more than welcome.

We were computerized, of course, but as I recall that in those days a large hard drive could hold only around 80 megabytes, and floppy disks only held less than a megabyte. The largest article (Valerie’s, I think) was about 180 KB. I can’t recall how we handled figures, but high-res scans were out of the question—as I recall we had to print and physically paste up the pages. Technology has rendered many such tasks easier, though critical thinking and writing remain as challenging as they’ve always been!

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