I will be presenting a paper at the AMS Popular Music Study Group session, entitled "The Anatomy of Style: Playing Technique as Musical Artifact".
The jew’s harp has, at various times, been one of the most popular musical instruments in Europe. First appearing on the continent in the 13th century (Kolltveit 2006), the instrument has undergone several cycles of mass production right up to the 21st century, and is currently experiencing a global revival. While it is easy to argue that musical instruments are musical artifacts, what about the techniques that are used to play them? In this paper, I contend that playing technique is an artifact that gets transmitted, historicized, and reproduced in the evolution of popular traditions. Using the ethnographic case study of the Austrian Maultrommel (jew's harp), I analyze the ways in which a music revival writes its own history through the inclusion of certain techniques and the exclusion of others. By examining three centuries of Maultrommel playing techniques through visual artwork, archival recordings, and contemporary performances, I trace the lineage of two different styles of playing: the Wechselpiel style, which became canonized as “traditional” and registered with UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, and the Alpine style, which is no longer used by present-day musicians. What are the processes that shape some techniques into artifacts and relegate others to obscurity? And what can the survival of certain styles tell us about changing tastes and technologies? Addressing these questions, I suggest methods for interpreting playing techniques, and demonstrate their applicability towards the understanding of popular traditions.