Heartland Excursions

    -- by Bruno Nettl, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 192 pages.

Bruno Nettl’s Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music is a well-written ethnography that explores the intricacies of the American music schools and departments of the Heartland’s universities. It explores the typical study of Western music in this setting through three vantage points: the extraterrestrial (E. T.) “ethnomusi-cologist from Mars,” the “native informant,” and the outside observer (Nettl 1995: 8). He analyzes the excursion by means of four perspectives, which he uses to investigate the inner workings of the standard Midwestern music school/department. These perspectives form the basis for the bulk of the book, and their use varies based upon the vantage point of the author and the issue of musical culture that is being addressed.

The first perspective that Nettl uses to examine the workings of the generic “Heartland University” (or “Heartland U”) is called “In the Service of the Masters” (11). In this chapter, Nettl candidly discusses the propensity to identify Western (and thus, European) Music as the basis for the majority of musical study in the United States. The E. T. ethnomusicologist finds it difficult to distinguish the dead musicians from the live ones (11-12). The native informant is waltzing through lists of Masters, including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner, and comparing the many lists of Master composers that are etched on both the buildings and the minds of the musically inclined (16-18). From this point of view of the outside observer, Nettl draws conclusions about the apparent “worship” of these Masters through history, myths, and the supernatural (19-28). The ritual use of the compositions of these Master composers and the adoration of them by the populations of the music building (the administration, teachers, and students) are also shown to be the normal ambiance of Heartland U. Nettl also draws on his experiences in doing ethnomusicology research with the Blackfoot Native American tribe to provide analogies between another culture and that of the music school (24-25). This perspective of Heartland U suggests that Western culture (especially the traditional German music culture) is superior in music and that its excellence has been unsurpassed by most world cultures.

“Society of Musicians,” the second perspective of the book, takes a look at the societal structure of music study in the Heartland U Music Building. Nettl uses the word “community” to describe the classifications of the populations within. He also posits a class system (or caste) to delineate the specific roles of the musician within the context of the Music Building. He compares these Heartland U musicians to those of the Madras of Southern India and again uses previous ethnomusicology experience to show comparisons between two cultures (43-50). He also compares the social structure 
of the music school to an industrial model that contrasts administrators, teachers, and students with executives, laborers, customers, and products (50-51). In the process of these comparisons, he covers a vast array of social issues, including those between instrumentalists and singers, different ensembles, various instruments, heritage, and economics. The variety of the comparisons between musical society and other forms of social structure provides a stable basis for the examination of the music culture within Heartland U. 

Nettl also inspects musical validity in a chapter entitled “A Place for All Musics? Confrontation and Mediation.” He again draws upon his various experiences in ethnomusicology, including those in Southern India, Iran, and with the Blackfoot Native American tribe, to offer authenticity in his assumptions about the musical assertions of the prevalent Heartland U music school. He discusses the musical choices of academics in the Heartland U setting as concentric circles with Classical Western music being the dead center (84). He also provides a record of the acceptable musical practices of Heartland U based upon the organizational taxonomies created by musicologists (and ethnomusicologists). This record includes thoughts on polymusicality, concerts, recordings, musical organizations, and ethnic events (87-96). Nettl again shows his ethnomusicology background in this chapter by reminding readers that each society has its own music history and structure. A society’s musical culture has been shaped by a combination of history and structure, and that culture cannot be validated by the same standards as Western music unless it is Western music (96-111). 

The last perspective explored in the book is “Forays into the Repertory.” This short journey into the canons of the Music Building (supplemented with examples of canons from other musical cultures) confronts the usual viewpoints of musicians who have been educated in Western music schools. These viewpoints include attitudes toward performance motivation, cultural aspects of the placement of a piece within the repertory, and the structure of the literature itself (112-142). Nettl is careful to examine those issues as a scholar and to encourage the reader be aware of the power of art and the relationships that form the tangled web of cultures, society, academia, musicianship, and the musician.

Nettl’s excursion into the world of Heartland academia was perhaps prompted by the huge amount of time he spent in this setting. He is described by Henry Kingsbury in academia as “…‘the king of ethnomusicology’ [an] epithet less than inspired, but hardly inappropriate” (Kingsbury 1996: 32). For this reason his “study of ‘[his] music’ and a discussion of ‘Ethnomusicology at Home’” is somewhat authenticated by his presence in his native setting (32). After providing a brief summary of the book, Kingsbury maintains that Nettl “elid[es] a first principle of ethnography” by using the non-existent music school of Heartland University (34). He views Nettl’s prose as literary; it is “a memoir crafted in the rhetoric of ethnography” from which “it would be a dull child who failed to learn a good bit from reading [it], but an utter fool who took it at face value” (34). Katherine Hagedorn states “Nettl’s ‘nonjudgmental’ work examines a ‘type’ [of institution],” rather than a “single institution” (Hagedorn 1996: 658). She also claims that “the book provides a provocative and often entertaining picture of life in the Music Building” and asks “why did Nettl not situate at least part of his study even closer to home — in the Ethnomusicology wing?” (659). She also finds that “Nettl’s many comparative references to Blackfoot, South Indian, and Persian musical cultures, although fascinating, do not always illuminate his observations about Western art music” (659). Even with some criticism, Hagedorn still identifies the book as “an important contribution to the scholarship on Western art music as a cultural system” (659). 

Now that a summary and outside assertions of validity and criticism have been made, I wish to continue the discussion by examining the text through the eyes of a first semester ethnomusicology graduate student. I found Nettl’s book to be just the segue I needed from four years of Western-centered study into several years of musical application through cultural standards that are not my own. I am grateful for Nettl, a senior scholar in the field of ethnomusicology, for taking the time to explore the Music Building in a way that illuminates my reflections on my last four years of music study and helps me make sense of the contextual anomalies in my still green system. About ninety-percent of my undergraduate time was spent in the Fine Arts Building, which became the center of my culture, society, and perceptions on musical thought. I often found myself wondering why I had to jump through hoops, why professors would often get very possessive of work/projects, and what exactly gave pianists the right to seemingly rule the world (I was but a lowly clarinetist…). None of these questions were explained to me, and when I entered the Music Building to find a new set of politics and customs, I was again left to try to discover the unwritten rules on my own. Ironically, many of the assumptions behind these rules seem to fit with those explored by Nettl (for example, conducting being a control issue, not a talent issue). If I ever become a professor, my students will read this book. It explains so many things that I have not understood until now. While this book breaks the mold of a typical ethnography, its power lies in the fact that Nettl uses a system that is prevalent in American society to expose truth in a way that can be easily evaluated and understood. When I was reading about Heartland U, I was reading about Campbell U (my alma mater) and it was this connection that made Nettl’s reflections valuable to me as a reader who is studying ethnomusicology. 

The structure and content of Heartland Excursions reminds me that ethnography should be personal and relational. It should include various experiences, an examination of historical context, various vantage points (from outsider to insider), and information that is presented in a variety of ways (for example, lists and other supplements to the main body of text). Using all these excellent features, Nettl’s Heartland Excursions encourages me to look beyond the surface assumptions of a music culture and to examine the depths where culture and society interact with history and performance.

Henry Kingsbury, review of Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music, by Bruno Nettl, Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol. 53, No.1 (September 1996): 32- 35.
Katherine J. Hagedorn, review of Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music, by Bruno Nettl, American Ethnologist, Vol. 23, No. 3 (August 1996): 658-659.

    --reviewed by Grace Hicks

Published in Vol.3, No.4 of


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Artists in Christian Testimony