Issues in Organology: A Review

Asian Music 25 (1993-94), pp. 213-17.

Issues in Organology. Sue Carole DeVale, ed. Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, vol. 8. Los Angeles: Ethnomusicology Publications, Department of Ethnomusicology and Systematic Musicology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1990. 297p. Illustrations, charts, maps, references cited.

The decade of the 1990s already has seen a renewed interest in the field of organology, both descriptive studies of individual instruments or music cultures and general or theoretical studies. In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction (1992), the first of two volumes edited by Helen Myers in the Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music series, Geneviève Dournon provides a useful survey of the field, providing general definitions based on the work of Hood, Bessaraboff, and Schaeffner (246-47), and concentrating on a methodical, amply illustrated explication of the Sachs-Hornbostel system, along with advice on collecting and preserving musical instruments of many cultures. The emphasis is on instruments as artifacts; this emphasis is further strengthened by the presence of two “reference aids” in the back of the volume: a history and list of musical instrument collections around the world, by Laurence Libin, and a translation of Hornbostel and Sachs’s 1914 article setting forth their classification scheme. In The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments (1992), the veteran scholar Anthony Baines has produced a fine summary of his lifelong work in a dictionary format much like that of The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1984). Baines’s approach is more humanistic and positive than divisive: where Hornbostel and Sachs plowed through the field of instruments, nudging them into separate piles based on minute distinctions, Baines appears to gather up similar items, say ‘shawms,’ based on common characteristics (including social functions and performance techniques) in a variety of cultures. This approach works best in areas of historic or prehistoric diffusion, such as the Eurasian cultures documented in his earlier volumes. Like earlier encyclopedic treatments, Baines’s book is weakest in its treatment of cultures remotest from the Eurasian civilizations. In another recent study, Margaret Kartomi (1990:271) discusses “concepts and classifications of musical instruments as part of a seamless web of cultural knowledge.” She emphasizes internal classification methods, both historical and contemporary, from several cultures (mainly Europe and Southeast Asia), and attempts to identify hierarchical schemes involving one or more oppositions or continua (e.g., material, sex of performer). Despite her well-defined ideas about single-level and multi-level hierarchies, Kartomi is content to take these diverse schemes as valid only within a given culture, rather than applicable to all human societies; indeed, she proposes that a single culture may recognize alternative schemes of classification, or may move from one way of thinking about musical instruments to a markedly different one.

The eighth volume of UCLA’s Selected Reports is an attempt to summarize recent work in the field and to propose a common terminology and methodology for future efforts. As volume editor, Sue Carole DeVale provides a conceptual model for organological research, which she embodies most strikingly in a recurring graphic motif consisting of a cube viewed obliquely, with three sides showing, or perhaps a hexagon divided into three equal rhombs representing classificatory, analytic, and applied approaches. DeVale acknowledges a prevailing confusion as to the scope of organology. Some find, she says, that “it attends only or primarily to the classification of instruments” (p. 1), while others emphasize the descriptive aspect for which Mantle Hood has proposed the term ‘organography.’ DeVale proposes to define and explore a multidisciplinary model for “the science of sound instruments” and to examine recent work in the context of her systematic network. By the use of various shadings of the cube icon, DeVale organizes the various articles according to the approach or combination of approaches emphasized by each.

The first three articles represent a definitive summary and expansion of the Hornbostel-Sachs classificatory scheme. In the first of his two contributions, Nazir Jairazbhoy lays out evidence for the widely-held belief that the fourfold classificatory scheme of Victor Mahillon (later adopted and amplified by Hornbostel and Sachs) derives from historical Indian models, through the intermediation of the Bengali nobleman and writer S. M. Tagore who in 1876 donated a collection of Indian musical instruments and books to the Belgian royal collection in Brussels. Jairazbhoy demonstrates that Mahillon’s writings show a knowledge of specific items in the Tagore library that also refer to the fourfold scheme of the Natyasastra and other Indian treatises, making it extremely likely that Mahillon derived from these sources the concept of aerophones, chordophones, membranophones, and ‘autophones.’ In his second contribution, Jairazbhoy offers a concise outline and explanation of the Hornbostel-Sachs system itself. A brief essay, acknowledging the inconsistencies inherent in the major subdivisions, is followed by a series of detailed schematic diagrams, rather like a taxonomic key, enabling the curator or researcher to fit an unknown item into the system.

In the third general article (placed before the other two because of its non-analytic classificatory emphasis), a group of scholars, mainly from UCLA, proposes a method for classifying electronophones, the fifth and newest group of sound producers, first proposed by Mantle Hood (p. 40). As in the original Sachs-Hornbostel system, problems arise from intersecting categories: the primary subdivision, between synthesizes and samplers, cuts across the field (except for a third group of hybrid instruments). The secondary subdivision, between analog and digital devices, also cuts across the entire group, leaving the reader to wonder if this distinction might have served as the primary one. These categories and their subdivisions refer solely to sound producers, and are indicated by decimal figures after the traditional Sachs-Hornbostel fashion. Player interfaces and other “modifiers” add a further dimension to the system. Interfaces include various kinds of controllers (keyboard, preset, MIDI, etc.) indicated by suffix letters following the decimal code; modifier codes indicate the presence of sound processors or music processors (sequencers) which can modify the sounds or musical elements produced by electronophones or indeed by any other sound source. Though examples are provided for some of the important divisions, it would have been helpful had the authors included a few examples of complete classification, including suffixes and modifiers.

The remaining eight articles discuss specific instruments and traditions, grouped by the volume editor according to their place in the cubical scheme. The contributions by Ola Kai Ledang, Steven Cornelius, and Viktor Fuks are clearly classificatory. Ledang’s insider’s view of Norwegian bark flutes (he learned to make them as a child) attempts to classify not only the instruments (by their structure) but also terms for the instrument and songs or jingles associated with its manufacture. Cornelius discusses the instruments of Afro-Cuban santería in New York City, classifying them by their religious and musical function and elucidating the symbolism and decoration of individual examples. Viktor Fuks comes closest to Kartomi’s approach in eliciting from informants a classification scheme for the large and varied instrumentarium of the Waiãpi of Brazil. In a rather original approach, Dale Olsen classifies not so much instruments as information about instruments, demonstrating how historical, iconographic, ethnographic and archeological data can contribute to an understanding of musical instruments in ancient Etruscan and Sinú (Colombia) cultures.

The three final contributions are the only ones in the volume not dealing explicitly with classification. David Harnish describes a single instrument, the preret of the Lombok Balinese, and analyzes the complex ethnic, ritual, and historical complex surrounding its performance. Ter Ellingson, in his detailed article on the Newar (Nepal) god of music, deals primarily with iconography, showing how Newar instruments embody images of the god, while graphic images of the god in turn incorporate representations of musical instruments, as in the drawing aptly reproduced on the cover of the volume. In the final article, characterized by the editor as analytic/applied, Ernest Brown does not so much introduce new material as generalize from diverse sources, African, North American, and elsewhere in the African diaspora, in order to formulate a set of common approaches toward musical instrument manufacture and performance practice. Brown shows how African aesthetic principles, instruments, and ensembles are recreated and transformed under hostile and changing conditions in a manner that is “intrinsic to the social process through which African-Americans define what it is to be Black and in the world at a given time” (288).

The volume is a significant one, comprising several essential and enduring contributions to the field. The book is well edited, the printing and illustrations clear and relevant. Among the few errors that escaped the proofreader’s pencil are “principals” for “principles” (3), “catagorized” and “ovide” (188), and “Opra Haza” for “Ofra Haza” (287). It remains to be seen, however, whether the editor’s structuralist vision represents a significant advance over earlier studies. The cube icon allows three “primary” emphases and three combinations of two. As the table of contents reveals, the interdisciplinary flow is incomplete within the volume, where the contributions comprise but two primary emphases (classificatory and analytic organology) and two composite emphases (classificatory/analytic and analytic/applied). Perhaps this reflects the current state of the discipline. Or it might reflect peculiarities in the editor’s classification of articles, or the availability of articles on particular subjects. At least it suggests directions for further research. It may be symptomatic of the discipline that, after years of classifying instruments, we now introduce new ways of classifying articles about instruments. And perhaps it is too much to hope, in a multicultural field like ethnomusicology, with its myriad terminologies, that we should avoid inventing new terms where perfectly adequate old ones exist. In her opening essay, DeVale presents a case for the term “music instrument” rather than “musical instrument.” Some of the contributors (notably Ernest Brown) follow her example, but I doubt that this neologism will be widely accepted.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1993 by The Society for Asian Music.

References Cited

Baines 1992Baines, Anthony. The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Kartomi 1990Kartomi, Margaret. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Myers 1992 Helen Myers, ed. Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. The Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music. New York: Norton, 1992. Chapter 10, “Organology,” by Geneviève Dournon, pp. 245-300.

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