Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

Introduction to the Collection, "Primitive Indian Tunes"

This collection of manuscripts, titled "Primitive Indian Tunes," were donated to the ethnomusicology program at Oberlin College in 2017 or so in hopes they might be useful. I am not sure what the donor imagine the use to be, but for me they have become valuable artifacts in a story about the social history of engagement with Indigenous sonic materials. I've opted to use the term "sonic" here rather than "music" to signal that some of the Indigenous practices referenced might not be identified as such by practitioners, at the time of collection or now, and remain semantically distinct from this thing we call "music."

When I received them, I tried to make sense of these manuscripts as social artifacts.We can't answer all these questions with certainty, but some sleuthing has meant we can sketch out plausible answers to a number of them, postulating a social history for the life these transcriptions. I became all the more fascinated in these "transcriptions" as I uncovered Oberlin connections. 

The story of the three individuals named on the top of the title page are told in more depth on this site and in the section on the colonialist legacies of early ethnological work. You can get there following the links in this entry. A brief version of the story goes something like this. Alice C. Fletcher began ethnographic work with the Omaha peoples in 1881, where she started transcribing musical practices and later recording them on wax phonograph cylinders. She then reached out to John Comfort Fillmore in 1888, asking for his assistance on musical matters. He suggested there was an implied harmony, meaning a Western tonal sense to the music, that was not yet realized, so he'd just fill it in for the "Indians." Fillmore took Fletcher's  transcriptions (graphic depictions of specific instances of sonic practices that one has heard directly, either in live performance or from a recording) and proceeded to provide harmonized arrangements of them, modifying them significantly in the process. Fillmore collaborated with Fletcher (and other early ethnologists) until his death in 1898. His harmonized arrangements of Fletcher's materials were published in at least two venues: 1) a serious ethnographic study by Fletcher with her Indigenous collaborator, Francis La Flesche, entitled A Study of Omaha Indian Music, published in 1893 by the Peabody Museum of Harvard, where Fletcher was a fellow, and 2) in a book designed for a broader, general public readership, Indian Story and Song from North Americapublished in 1900. Franz Joseph Zeisberg, noted in the historical record as a composer and arranger, clearly consulted the latter given the parallels and overlap in musical materials, borrowing the published arrangements and elaborating on them, producing the hand-written arrangements that are included below. The act of arranging assumes their performance and an audience, but we can only imagine the possible shape of those. 

While the person who penned this title, presumably F. J. Zeisberg, called the collection of scores "Piano Transcriptions," technically they are not transcriptions. Given the relative inaccessibility of the cylinder recordings at the time of these transcriptions, it is unlikely that Zeisberg heard the cylinder phonograph recordings that Fletcher recorded in the field, but rather more likely that he consulted Fillmore's published piano arrangements of Fletcher's transcriptions included in the volume, Indian Story and Song from North America. It would be more accurate to say Zeisberg's scores are re-arrangements of what are themselves are arrangements of transcriptions. The source material, moreover, comes from sources other than Fletcher, as we will see below. 

One of the facts that I encountered early on that intrigued me was the connection to Oberlin College: the connection of early ethnologist and collector of Indigenous music, Frances Densmore, to Oberlin has long been know. But it turns out that Fillmore, acknowledged on the title page as recording the tunes along with Fletcher and the proto-theorist almost single-handedly responsible for instigating the harmonization of Indigenous practices, also has an Oberlin connection: he studied organ and piano at the Conservatory and was a member of the class of 1866, was a  faculty member in 1867, and received an Honorary A.M. in 1870.

And there is at least one more Oberlin connection: these piano arrangements also came into my hands through a community member via another alumna, Janet Knapp Byle (1922-2010), Oberlin College A.B., 1945, Oberlin College M.A, 1952 and Yale University Ph.D., 1961. Byle was a musicologist and music history professor. "Her teaching career was spent at Oberlin, Yale (1958–1963), Boston University (1963–66), Brown University (1967–1971), and Vassar College (as Mellon Professor of Music, 1971–86)" and significantly she "was the first woman to be elected President of the AMS, serving in that ca­pacity in 1975–76" (2010 Obituary in AMS Newsletter 40(2):31). It is not hard to imagine why or how they might have come to be the hands of a musicologist, but it is hard to say whether she used these manuscripts in teaching or research. There is a note that suggests the owner of the documents prior to Knapp, but we can't trace them all the way back to Zeisberg. 

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