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Ethnomusicology is a perfect discipline to explore political issues.

Katherine Lee Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, UCLA

Ethnomusicology is a field of study that combines the theory and methods of anthropology with the study of music, so it’s kind of like the study of music and culture. It’s an interdisciplinary field, so a lot of people come in to ethnomusicology with differing backgrounds. Some come in through performance, they majored in music performance as I did, but other folks come through anthropology or cultural studies, so it’s actually a discipline that’s pretty inclusive and welcomes a variety of different perspectives and backgrounds.

The kinds of classes that an ethnomusicologist would teach are classes in music cultures of the world, and those can be large survey course for undergraduates. And in addition to that, if the school has a graduate program in ethnomusicology then one would also teach graduate seminars in ethnomusicology. So in the past, I’ve taught musical ethnography as practice and genre; interrogating sound, music, and politics; and a proseminar in ethnomusicology.


At UCLA, I’m teaching musics of Asia, which is an undergrad course for ethnomusicology majors, and a graduate seminar in ethnography, and I’m doing a special freshman seminar on K-pop. I knew that there would be an interest in K-pop, but I did want to kind of think about it from a more critical perspective. So, thinking about issues of race or gender in K-pop videos, for instance. This is a very popular form of music and dance that’s coming out of South Korea right now and a lot of it is broadcast through these videos. And these videos are highly produced, very snazzy, and they seem to draw a really international audience.

But some of the issues that are involved… let’s take gender, for instance. There are lots of girl bands, and also boy bands, but the girls are — and I think this is true for the boys as well, who are kind of brought up into this business — they’re kind of plucked from an early age and there are these large entertainment companies or artist management companies that find these young kids who have potential to become good dancers, good singers, whatnot. They’re kind of molded into this image of ultra-femininity or a certain type of effeminate masculinity. I think it’s important to be aware of all of that, this complex. That this is a very deliberate, cultivated image that maybe the artists or musicians themselves don’t have very much agency over because they’re being managed by these large companies that control the image and the product. So, just to be aware of those dynamics.

Obviously, people are going to enjoy what they want to enjoy, they like this music because it’s catchy or it makes them want to dance or whatever, but teaching students how to have a critical perspective or how to think critically is one of the most important parts of my job. And it doesn’t have to be K-pop; that’s kind of an easy target because that’s a frame of reference that a lot of my students know about. In my other classes, say the large music cultures of the world class, each week students are being introduced to different musical traditions around the world and I think one of the objectives of that class is to use ethnomusicology in a way so that it becomes a window into another culture and another world view that may be quite different from their own. By doing that, I’m hoping to teach them about the value of other cultural systems or musics and to have them be a little bit open to things in the world, not just from the western perspective or the American perspective or the southern California perspective, but that there are many different ways of approaching musical practice and musical beliefs. I think that’s at the heart of what I do, giving students that opportunity to think outside of their box, and music facilitates that.


With respect to the students that I’ve taught in the past, the large lectures (music cultures of the world), those are directed towards non-music majors. At UC Davis, for instance, I had a lot of folks from the sciences — agricultural science, animal science — and that meant that this would probably be the only music class that they would ever take in their college career, or maybe one of two at most. I really loved teaching non-music majors because it’s a challenge for me because in a short amount of time, in 10 weeks, you have to give them some tools so they can start to talk about the sounds that they’re listening to in an intelligent way. They might not have thought so carefully about what they were listening to, but now they’re able to develop a working vocabulary to talk about sounds. But in addition to that, I’m also giving them a chance to reflect upon what those sounds mean to a particular culture, the significance of this particular musical tradition to this culture and a little bit of the history as well.

In the case of the non-music major just taking only one ethnomusicology course and going on, my hope is that they develop a curiosity about other cultures and also give them some kind of memory of a different culture that they may use later. The example that I often give is of students learning this music for the first time and it’s musics of Asia and Africa and the Middle East and the Americas, so it’s really a broad survey course. And then, say they listen to musics of the Middle East and then in the future they have an encounter with someone who is from the Middle East and they can say to them, “Oh, I know a little bit about your culture, I listened to takht, I listened to this kind of instrumental music in my world music class.” And that little detail, that memory, gives them an in, an entry point into a longer conversation. That’s my hope with the non-music majors, that they develop some curiosity about some other cultures but then they also have some kind of reference points for future conversations with people from different cultures.


Within the UC system, it’s going to be expected that most assistant professors in my field would have to produce a book by the end of their tenure, a six-year period. In addition to that, one should also publish articles and then present at conferences… you know, being an active scholar. And not always writing about the same topics, to develop new research projects and write new articles, write new books on that.

I received a Fulbright to go to South Korea, so I was there from 2008 to the middle of 2009. I was doing my research there, I was conducting interviews, going to performances and events, and doing a little bit of archival work. The book, which is called “Dynamic Korean Rhythmic Form,” which will come out in October of this year with Wesleyan University Press, is based on my field research. The genre that I write about in the book is called samul nori and this is a genre of percussion music that comes from South Korea. It’s based on a much older tradition but this particular genre of music was created in 1978 in Seoul. The book looks at how this musical genre from South Korea went global. Like, how was it that this percussion music became sort of a genre of music that is played by amateur enthusiasts in different parts of the world that don’t necessarily have a connection to Korea? It’s not an ethnic connection. So my book tries to answer that question of how does a musical genre go global, but by using samul nori as a case study. What I’m arguing is that the rhythm-based form of samul nori is this kind of critical site for these cross-cultural encounters, and I do an analysis of the rhythmic form. First, it kind of draws people in, as fans, but then there’s a point where these people become practitioners, so I’m interested in that moment. I’m arguing that part of the reason why it went global is there’s this very accessible rhythm-based form.

There was a world samul nori festival held in 2008 in Korea and that coincided with my field research. I was able to meet all of these international groups that learned how to play samul nori. These groups, four of them, appear in my book. There’s a group from Mexico City, there’s a group from Basel, Switzerland, there’s a group from Tokyo, and one from the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

I wanted the book to be readable. That sounds kind of funny, but it’s actually a concern of mine. There are academic texts that are very obscure or written in a very confusing manner, overly intellectualized and over-theorized manner, and it’s almost impenetrable, you can’t understand it. I made a choice when I was writing this book that I really wanted any of the ensembles that are featured in the book to be able to read the book. There is a chapter on music analysis, so that’s kind of thorny, but even so, I think the ensembles would be able to follow it because they know how the music works. I really wanted to have clear prose and not be bogged down by academic jargon or theory and to be able to tell a story. I hope that comes through and that people, especially the folks that helped to make samul nori a global phenomenon — so that includes the creators, the practitioners, and then all of these enthusiasts around the world — I hope that they will be able to read it and understand it.


I think one of the things that I’ve learned the hard way, and everybody has to learn this when they first take up a teaching position, is the fact that there are so many different hats that one needs to wear and that you’re not necessarily trained to do that. For instance, you have to develop your courses and your syllabi and teach the classes, so that’s the teaching hat that one has to wear. But then there’s also the research component, which is significant, which is how many of us are evaluated. That’s something that you have received training on at the graduate level, but you need to continue the momentum for that and continue to write for grants and continue to present at conferences and continue to produce. And then there’s service within the university, serving on various sorts of committees, whether it’s undergraduate committee or performance committee… that’s something that you learn, how to be part of the fabric of the department. I tend to do a lot of event planning because that’s in my background, but I think some scholars who perhaps haven’t had that background find that challenging because it involves a different personality or a different mode — there’s a lot of logistical details that need to be worked out if you’re planning an academic event or a conference or a performance event. You need to bring the artist or the scholar and host them and kind of see all that through. There's a tremendous amount of work that goes into it. But I find it’s really gratifying, and it’s also in some ways a little bit more immediate than the scholarly endeavor, where you do research for a very very long time and you write for a very very long time and then the article comes out several years later. I find that event planning gives me an immediate goal to look towards.

Another component that I’ve learned about is fundraising; a lot of scholars now have to fundraise for their departments, their programs, or their schools. That was something that I didn’t think was part of my position as an ethnomusicologist, but I think that is kind of the reality because of the issues facing funding of higher education. There need to be other revenue streams for projects or various things, so you have to go out into the community and look for possible donors to help with some projects. There’s so many different duties that one has even though the position itself seems fairly straightforward — “You’re just a professor” — but it actuality, you have to adapt to these different needs and requirements and find a sweet spot. I think that the demands or expectations of tenure track faculty to produce scholarship really outweighs a lot of the other categories. But the fact that you still have to teach your classes and serve on committees and do all this other stuff… that takes up a lot of time.


I do need to take a little bit of a breather but I think I will work on another book project. That’s one of the nice things about being a researcher or an academic, is that we do have this freedom to study these topics that may be large or small and devote a lot of time and attention to them and we have the freedom to do so. I may revisit samul nori in a different form but I think I would like, once the book comes out, to shift my attention towards a second project and that is going to be on the World Vision Korean Orphan Choir which is a group that was tied with World Vision charity organization and the founder, Bob Pierce. This choral group, they toured internationally and they also have a recording history, so you can buy LPs of their recordings. The Korean War was 1950–1953, and this group emerged in the 60s. I’m interested in how this group was attached to World Vision, but then also connected with U.S.–Korea relations.

A lot of my research projects also delve into broader themes of music and politics. It’s not just a musical analysis of the songs, but I’m interested in what are the political associations with the group or the music; I think that’s one angle of my research profile. I think ethnomusicology is a perfect discipline to explore political issues or issues that may have to do with nationalism or resistance. Music can connect to a lot of these larger topics.

I feel really blessed to be in this field and have a lot of friends who are ethnomusicologists. I was lucky to have figured this out earlier on in life, even though it took me a long time to get to where I am. I had this hunch that ethnomusicology was really interesting to me and even though I didn’t realize it at the time I was doing all those steps by going abroad and studying the language and working for an arts management company with the group that I wrote about and doing all those travels… I’m one of the lucky ones. I also found a job after graduation, so I feel very blessed to be able to do this job and study these topics freely. It’s a gift.

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