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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH) Sociality–Music–Dance

Paul Nixon

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Information: Paul Nixon, author of books about dance.


Sociality – Music – Dance: Human Figurations in a Transylvanian Valley. Göteborg 1998. Skrifter från Institutionen för musikvetenskap, Göteborgs universitet, nr 34, 1998. Pp. xxvii + 636. Illustrations, maps, photographs, and musical transcriptions.

This is a big book, and it is a challenging book. There is, indeed, nothing simple about Paul Nixon’s Sociality – Music – Dance. It challenges the reader with tough questions, and it tackles subjects for which ethnomusicologists and social anthropologists have historically preferred convenient answers, even formulaic answers that confirmed their convictions that folk music and dance provided evidence for societies that were more or less in running order. Rhetorically, too, the book confronts the reader with the need for multiple reading strategies, points of entry into an historical and discursive texture that starts and stops, that pushes readers forward and then arrests their attention, that unfolds across multiple historical landscapes, each enabling readers to experience the human figurations of Transylvania’s Gurghiu Valley in multiple ways.

It is precisely because this book is challenging, however, that it makes such a crucial contribution to the emerging literature on Eastern Europe since 1989. Nixon does not celebrate a new era, and he eschews any nostalgia for bygone eras. He draws the reader into a world where life itself is tough, and where the human sociality that music and dance create most often serves as a cultural strategy for moving from one day to the next and for making the best of a history and culture that have rarely not been tough. Therein, however, lies the importance of music and dance for the residents of the Gurghiu Valley, as human activities that contribute substantially to the warp and woof of civilizing processes. Music and dance are responses to the everyday and historical challenges Romanians have endured and continue to confront. They provide enduring reasons for readers also to confront the challenge that the book itself raises, reasons that Nixon’s book, as big as it is, highly deserves the critical attention of all readers interested in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the twentieth century.

Many histories are woven into the fabric of Sociality – Music – Dance. There are those narrative threads that represent the history of Romania; there are threads that tie together the lives of valley residents; there are personal and autobiographical threads as well. It is critical, I believe, to follow all of these histories through the various chapters in which they unfold. The autobiographical narrative, in other words, the history of Nixon’s fieldwork and his struggle to confront the challenges of anthropological and ethnomusicological institutions in both Romania and the United Kingdom provides a crucial underpinning for the larger story of the book. When he first embarked upon fieldwork in 1979, Nixon approached Romanian folk music with full objectivity and a keen sensibility for experiencing folk music in its full diversity. His aim was to read through and beyond the official pronouncements and the widespread state support of music-making. Quickly, that became his problem. His hosts in Bucharest preferred that he amplify the stories that had so long served to glorify the folk and their music, from Bartók’s Hungarian nationalism to A. L. Lloyd’s glorification of Marxism. The –isms of generations of folk-music scholars had served official histories well, but, as Nixon discovered, they would work against him just as he attempted to circumvent them.

In 1979, Nixon was forced to suspend fieldwork in Romania soon after initiating it, albeit at that moment when his most probing questions were being voiced. It was surely to his advantage in the 1990s, after he could return upon the fall of Ceausescu to engage in follow-up research, which however actually necessitated reformulation of the original project. Nixon constantly confronted the need to stop and start, to situate himself as an interlocutor and then to regroup when told that he must not ask the questions he was in fact asking. For ethnomusicologists this book will be more than a little sobering and thought-provoking, for one of its most disturbing, if revelatory, histories arises from Nixon’s description of his exclusion from the British ethnomusicological establishment when he failed to tell the same old stories about socialism’s enduring support of folk music, but rather documented human misery and the human destruction that even state-sponsored musical programs brought about. Though few ethnomusicologists anymore would deny that their discipline has invented its fair share of traditions, we rarely read tales of the dire consequences that such invention also produces. This book bristles with such tales, some of them effectively horror stories, which nonetheless demand our attention and attentiveness.

The fabric of interwoven histories is no less prevalent at the microlevel of the Gurghiu Valley than at the macrolevel of the discourse history of the book itself. Nixon requires that we recognize the full complexity of the Gurghiu Valley, where the confrontation with the everyday, with the region, with the nation, and with present and past is possible only through difficult processes of social decision-making and negotiation. At the very least, the valley is not a folk-music culture in any kind of traditional sense. Indeed, Nixon’s thick description of the valley’s culture significantly disabuses the reader of lingering notions about the theories of isolation predicated on music-making away from the impact of civilization, be these the theories of "speech islands," or be they the hopeful selectivity of a Béla Bartók, who researched extensively in the valley.

Drawing upon Norbert Elias’s concept of "civilizing processes," Nixon calls for a description that excludes nothing, but requires instead that multivalent connections always be considered: the human need to make music and to socialize with dance and ritual is part of a fabric including connections to foodways, emotion, love-making, religion, commerce, power, and politics, and no less to struggles between individuals, violence, and the realities of degradation. These processes work together, but their togetherness does not signal the unity of an idyllic world of peasant music-making. Instead, they bear witness to dissonance, aporia, and incongruity. Nixon’s observations about the enduring presence of dissonance provide the theoretical core for his book (see, especially, Part Four). In essence, he asks that we hear music as it is, not as it should be, and that we recognize interethnic relations between Roma and Romanians in the Gurghiu Valley as they are rather than as state officials would imagine them to be. Listening to dissonance is one of the most persuasive metaphors of the book, one that deserves attention comparatively and in studies of other local and transnational musics.

During several narrative moments of the book, Nixon draws us into the very personal lives of Gurghiu Valley musicians and music makers. He turns no individuals into heroes, even those whose lives he, I believe as I read between the lines, truly does admire. One of the most intriguing of all the individuals in the book is Ioan Farcas, a local musician who at first rose to importance by taking advantage of the cultural agencies that furthered careers of musicians willing to conform to state guidelines, but who then rejected the system that had, in large part, made him who he was. In reading of Farcas’s rejection of the system, though, we still do not encounter a hero, some sort of musician’s musician who relied on public sensibility to local traditions, for example, the mass production of panpipes in folk style. The transcriptions of Farcas’s performances show that he was indeed different, and that his creativity stemmed from his wanton avoidance of the system. He was not, however, better. As a resident within and outside the valley, he nonetheless embodied one human figuration among many others.

The most disturbing histories in the book are those told about Roma and the social presence of Roma musicians in the culture of the valley. Nixon goes well beyond the usual reports of large-scale prejudice and racism. He looks, instead, at the dissonance of everyday events that have dominated musical life in the valley throughout its multi-ethnic past and have lessened not at all in a post-Communist era in which a greater sense of humn dignity has putatively enveloped Romania. Long-time residents of the Gurghiu Valley, Roma have historically been marginalized and stigmatized. They have suffered enormous indignity and violence from Romanians, particularly physical and sexual violence against Romani women, but have also been forced to accept that violence in order to secure the position of male Romani musicians in the transmission of traditional and professionalized music. As the true tradition bearers in many domains of musical activity, Romani musicians paradoxically tolerate violence against their traditional family members and structures in order that they not lose their position in the fabric of Transylvanian< society. In such ways, violence and music, racism and history have become ever more interdependent.

In the course of Sociality – Music – Dance, that is, as the stultifying conditions of 1979 give way to the liberating changes after 1989, the reader might well expect the history narrated by the book to become easier or to bear witness to the sense of liberation. Nixon’s book, however, does not become easier, and its fundamental challenges refuse to go away. The questions posed by cultural changes in Romania today still have no ready answers, and Paul Nixon insists that we recognize just how compelling these questions are by pointing out that Romania’s cultural history is still being written, and that the responses to the changes since Ceausescu remain very fragmentary. Still, Nixon by no means abandons hope. Quite the contrary, he perceives that hope is anchored in the human figurations that music, dance, and sociality weave together, human figurations that refuse to shy away from the challenges of the present, human figurations that provide readers with abundant reasons not to turn away from the challenge of this book.

–Philip V. Bohlman
Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna. University of Chicago

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