The working title of this post was “Musicologists are from Mars and Ethnomusicologists are from Venus”.
I am frequently asked, “What’s the difference between musicology and ethnomusicology?” This is the sort of question that used to start fights at parties, and to this day breeds some answers that get people rather hot and bothered in a bad way. Fortunately, Hollywood is here to help with explaining the differences, courtesy of two recent movies: Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (2010) and Lavinia Currier’s Oka! (2010, but only now going into wider release). These two films show a little bit – just a little – of life in the professions, enough for anyone to make a totally unbiased and well-informed decision about which one to study.
You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger features the Indian actress Freida Pinto as Dia, a doctoral student in musicology. She plays the guitar, studies the works of Luigi Boccherini, and looks smashing in a red dress. (Some of you may recognize Freida Pinto from her role in Slumdog Millionaire, where she played the adult Latika, the hero’s love interest/obsession/childhood friend.) She doesn’t say a lot about her studies, but is used to long-distance relationships because of her fiancé’s work and her research. She also has the free time to take on a few extracurricular interests, including a certain professional novelist. Not a bad showing for (historical) musicology, if you can forgive the pun.
Oka! features the British actor Kris Marshall as Larry Whitman, an ethnomusicologist from New Jersey. He does field research in the Central African Republic, in a region called Yandombe, and the film is infused with his research. His work is his life, literally – our hero is not well, but determined to complete his ethnographic work if he dies trying. (Some of the other characters would simply prefer that he die trying, regardless of the work, for extramusical reasons.) As a white person from New Jersey, he also can’t dance – much to the amusement of his research subjects. Much of the beauty of Oka! comes from its lush rainforest settings. It’s based in part – to the extent that Hollywood is ever truly based – on an unpublished memoir by the ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, who lived with and conducted research on the Aka/Akka pygmies of Yandombe.
Where and how these two characters conduct their research is a telling mark of how (historical) musicology and ethnomusicology often diverge. Dia studies a European composer; although it is never explicitly mentioned, the musicologists among us can infer that her research involves sources held almost entirely in Western collections, most of them in Europe. Larry is metaphorically in the field and literally in the jungle. Since he’s dealing with living people and not a dead composer, the sources are necessarily a bit different. Where you go from there becomes a matter of methodology.
If you’re interested in the actual films, the New York Times has reviews for both:
- NYTimes Review: You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger Note: this review opens with a picture of Freida Pinto as the musicologist Dia.
- NYTimes Review: Oka! Note: this review opens with a picture of Kris Marshall as ethnomusicologist Larry Whitman, in the field. It has jungles and elephants, but probably will not be nearly as interesting to you as the person wearing the red dress in the other movie.