Thursday, December 22, 2016

Not Another Music History Blog! Public Musicology on the Internet

by Linda Shaver-Gleason

Its like looking into a mirror.

It seems like one of the favorite things for musicologists to do on social media is to point out when someone is wrong on the internet, which happens frequently with a subject as goofily misrepresented in the press as classical music. We share the link, quote the offending passage, skewer the cliché or diagnose the anachronism, and wait for our friends to congratulate us for possessing more knowledge than the poor sap who blundered.

But last spring it occurred to me that such posts and the often-enlightening conversations that ensue were confined to our own virtual ivory tower. Maybe one of us comments on the original link to point out the errors, or—in the case of a major publication—pens a letter to the editor to set things right. Most often, though, we’re content to snark behind the author’s back, letting them persist in ignorance, along with any other non-historian who stumbles upon the link.

So, I started my own blog, Not Another Music History Cliché!, aiming for it to become a classical music version of Snopes. I saw the need for a trustworthy resource for people who want to confirm whether something they read in a review or program notes is true. I debunked perennial legends like Salieri murdering Mozart and Tchaikovsky committing suicide, but from the beginning I also wanted to go deeper, and address writing that was not “wrong,” but sloppily conventional, digging beyond the stock phrases writers use to describe famous composers. As a Mendelssohn scholar, I get irate when people describe him as “superficial,” a criticism that casual classical music lovers accept without realizing that it is rooted in anti-Semitism. My first post disputed a festival preview that claimed, “Dvorák’s music never tried to be progressive.” I felt it necessary to call reviewers out for relying on these tired tropes to meet their word counts.

Presenting myself as a Music Scholar on The Internet means that I officially do “public musicology.” This phrase has been bandied about a lot lately, even though we haven’t completely settled on what it means. In any case, most of us feel that public musicology is a Good Thing and we need to being doing more of it. Yet how we do scholarship in public is still largely unregulated, and this is an issue that extends beyond our own discipline. As Mark Greif wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When [academics] contemplated writing for the “public,” it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial language with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the “general reader,” seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than themselves.

          I’ve encountered similar elitism from fellow musicologists, wondering why I quibble over some problematic phrase appearing on a blog or in an online review. After all, anyone can publish on the internet, right? We try to teach our students to be wary of online sources, that Wikipedia is fickle by nature, and now, more urgently than ever, how to spot propaganda posing as news. Still, I find the blanket dismissal of internet writing on music indicative of someone who does not grasp the potential of this relatively young (though no longer “new”) medium.

I agree, musicology blogs should not be held to the same standard as a scholarly journal; they should be held to different high standards. 

But what should those standards and practices be? I’d like to take a few moments as a self-appointed Senior Music Blogger (well, senior to the newest incarnation of Musicology Now, at least) to share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past seven months, to map a little bit of this new world of musical writing and, perhaps, to encourage others to participate.

• Realize that you have no control over who reads your posts. One of the exciting things about blogging is that we do not limit our potential audience. You could argue that this has always been the case, since the earliest days of publishing—we never know who will pick up a book or scan a journal. But access to scholarly books and journals is itself a limiting force. A musicology blog can now reach people who are curious about music but have never been to a research library or logged into JSTOR. That often means that readers are jumping into the middle of a long conversation, unaware of context, potentially getting their first impressions with each post.

That should affect how we present our work online. If we want our reader to understand that our post is part of a larger discussion, the responsibility is on us to provide the context. In scholarly publication, such digressions are usually there to prove to the reader that you’ve done your research and you know your stuff. When blogging for a general audience, however, there’s no standard checklist of sources you must include to be taken seriously. On the other hand, you can easily use hyperlinks to give readers the option to explore related topics without disrupting the flow of your writing. The medium is ideal for these kinds of tangents, and they’re much more convenient than footnotes.

• You also have no control over your reception. This is particularly unnerving. Many musicologists are also teachers, accustomed to steering discussions and correcting misinterpretations in our classrooms. When we post something online, however, our authority extends only as far as the comments section of our own sites. Most of the discussion will occur off-site, on social media and in forums that may be unfriendly to critical thought.

When music critic Norman Lebrecht shared a description of musicologist William Cheng’s Just Vibrations on his blog, it led to a confrontation between Cheng and a crowd of classical music fans openly hostile toward recent academic approaches to music. I’ve seen my blog posts misconstrued on Reddit, but advice from a blogging medievalist helped me realize that there’s little to be gained by attempting to make clarifications on that message board.  I have no authority over there, only on my own blog.

• Even though your work is available, you must cultivate the audience you want. I just got finished telling you that anyone can find your work on the internet, but the truth is that not everyone will. I’m constantly concerned about reaching my intended audience. I am grateful for my blog’s circulation among musicologists, and I am honored whenever someone tells me that they’re assigning one of my posts in class. I’m of course pleased that I’ve been generally well-received by my own people, but I’m concerned that I’m still talking inside the echo chamber that I’d been hoping to escape. I honestly don’t know how many non-musicologists read my blog, outside of my own family.

Yes, that is my family. No, that was not our wallpaper.

I do my best to make my blog accessible in all senses of the word. I try to write clearly without using too much jargon (and, if I need a specialized term, I define it) or getting caught up in a major philosophical debate that isn’t central to my topic (again, hyperlinks are great for indicating broader context). I also make sure that my blog is friendly to search engines, placing plenty of keyword tags on each post. The people I want to reach may not be reading every new post as I publish, but the information on my blog remains available and can be found via Google search. So, when someone years from now wonders whether Bach hated the piano, they will find a clear answer without having to post a query to Yahoo Answers or Reddit or StackOverflow.

Unlike publishing in scholarly journals or with university presses, it is possible to actively seek out your audience with a few well-placed clicks. I do promote my posts on social media with tags like #publicmusicology, as a signal to my colleagues—but to reach non-musicologists, I tag the composers’ names and #classicalmusic. I follow the online presence of orchestras and music critics and see what tags they’re using. I tag non-scholars whenever applicable. Sometimes, I get lucky: Alex Ross retweeted a simple post on the existence of Buxtehude, and I am forever grateful for the response I got. I recently started paying for ads on Facebook and Twitter to target classical music fans; it’s too early to say whether it’s made an impact, but I am trying.

• You absolutely have a scholarly duty to be accurate. Again, you can publish anything on the internet. That doesn’t mean you should. The absence of any formal standards in blogging has given me the freedom to develop my own standards, among them a friendlier form of peer review. Nearly every post I write receives feedback from other musicologists before I post it, with a final read-through from my non-musicologist husband after the facts are established. Though I know more about music than most of the “general public,” I’m still not an expert on every subfield, so I rely on the expertise of others to keep me accurate. Musicology is a small and very tight-knit field, which means that each of us is at most only two degrees away from an expert. Friends and friends-of-friends are valuable resources.

• Your job is to stimulate enthusiasm, not quash it. Since I threw myself into the business of debunking myths, I’m at risk of being the pedant who derails an interesting conversation with, “Well, actually…” Sometimes I worry I’m so caught up in correcting misconceptions about music that I give the impression I don’t actually like it. That’s motivated me to write more than just corrections, to explain why the history matters and hopefully replace the warm fuzzies of a feel-good false narrative with an awed appreciation for history.

From the very beginning, I decided that I wouldn’t go after personal blogs. My target isn’t the millennial who posts, “Listening to Beethoven because he’s so dark and angry all the time, which makes for the best music.” Even if it’s not based on solid history, that’s an attitude I want to encourage. Having more people listening to the widest range of music is a good thing.

I do go after “people who should know better,” as I nebulously define it. This includes journalists and other people who are being paid to write about music, or who have at least some illusion of editorial oversight. (I mean, I hope Garrett Harris isn’t getting paid!) Your blog should make people feel excited about being better-informed, not defensive about their lack of cultural capital.

• Embrace mission drift. My blog started metamorphosing almost as soon as I started writing. Even though I had envisioned producing short articles with simple refutations, I started writing more about how the myths and stereotypes came to be and why they persist. In so doing, I had the opportunity to show my specialty within musicology, which is reception. My blog demonstrates that musicology means more than tabulating a composer’s birth date, death date, and a few anecdotes in between; it’s a distinct approach to thinking about art, history, and society. My goal became more than correcting errors; I want my readers to feel the reality of L.P. Hartley’s famous observation—itself dangerously close to becoming an empty cliché—that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I want them to appreciate contexts for music beyond their own, and the more I write in this vein, the more I develop my own scholarly identity and learn how to articulate it.

• Have something (intersubjectively) interesting to say. I suspect that people who are of the, “It’s just a blog” mentality still think of blogs predominantly as personal journals. Yes, they can be, but the most successful blogs tend to be ones that find a hook that interests other people and even fills an intellectual need. Mine is musical mythbusting. Trax on the Trail explores the use of music in politics, from the 2016 election and beyond. The Avid Listener aims at fostering classroom discussions, complete with provocative questions. Brooks Kuykendall’s Settling Scores examines minute textual differences between different editions of pieces—a splendid example of how a very traditional-seeming kind of musicology does not have to be “dumbed down” at all to be interesting to outsiders. Each blog has a distinctive voice as the writers reach out from their specialties to inform and entertain.

Blogging is an opportunity to display the variety of musicology. Our field is doubly embattled, as our neoliberal society devalues both what we study (art) and how we study it (the humanities). Blogging allows us to make our case for existence directly to the public. We must challenge the narrow perception of our work by revealing how vast and versatile it can be. The medium is ideal for proving our relevance by showing how we’re connected to the “real issues” facing our society—indeed, how musicological inquiries are those “real issues"—in contexts our readers may not have considered yet. 

Linda Shaver-Gleason earned her PhD in musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2016. She has presented her research on Mendelssohn reception and British music culture at several conferences in the US and UK, including national meetings of the American Musicological Society. Her blog, Not Another Music History Cliché, debunks musical myths and explores current classical music reception. In the Awful Family Photo above, she is the girl in front with her eyes closed.


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  2. If it hasn't been claimed yet. "hyperlinks"

  3. African Folk - Music held to be average of a country or ethnic gathering, known to all portions of its general public, and safeguarded for the most part by oral custom.