Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rethinking Music Theory, With Syrian Aid

By Gavin Lee

There was a standing ovation when Kofi Agawu finished his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the Society for Music Theory, “Rethinking Music Theory, With African Aid.” The premise of the speech was that music theory could do worse than to rethink its fundamental precepts from the outside, by using African musics as a reference point to think about tonality, rhythm, timbre and myriad other theoretical areas. While this was a move in the right direction, I remember wondering whether the audience was applauding because they were thoroughly convinced by the speech, because this was a long-awaited call for music theory to expand its horizon, because Agawu’s speech ignited a strong moral feeling of rightness grounded in liberalism—or whether because it was Agawu who gave the speech. Could an unknown scholar based in the non-West have been asked to give the keynote, and would she have received a standing ovation?

Two decades after New Musicology emerged, the slew of agendas ranging from postcolonial and critical race studies to gender and sexuality that it ushered in has had a mixed impact. We might attribute music theory’s turn to non-Western music, not least in Agawu’s keynote speech, to the impact of New Musicology, which, in heralding the deployment of literary theory, led to the rise of orientalist studies, with Jonathan Bellman’s 1998 edited volume The Exotic in Western Music being an early focal point. Since then, there has been a push to reach beyond Western music to address the music and discourse of actual others, and the recent establishment of the Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM) interest group of SMT marks a decisive turning point.

Has music theory become more socially liberal (in the American sense) than musicology? AMS, the spiritual home of New Musicology, is not without members who work on music from other parts of the world, and we have seen some promising developments in terms of lessening the divide between hoary binaries such as West and non-West, in part by adopting concepts such as postcolonialism, cultural transfer, cosmopolitanism, and globalization. Yet the divisions run deep across academic institutions, journals, and university departments. Given that AMS does not yet have such as a group as “Musicological Approaches to World Music” (not that ethnomusicologists would approve, in all likelihood), it would seem that AAWM in its embrace of music around the globe represents a wing of SMT that is more progressive than its sister society. Yet on other items in the agenda of the 90s, music theory has proved to be far more resistant. I’m constantly reminded that whereas Queer Musicology is now a thing, queer issues in music theory circles are regularly consigned precisely to musicology, leaving music theory untouched—and believe me, I have heard that argument many many times as chair of the SMT Queer Resource Group.

This is not the place for an extended philosophical discussion on the convoluted relation between musicology and music theory, but I shall offer two commonly circulated logics, without intending them as anything near a comprehensive analysis of that relation.

1) “I’m not racist because I have black friends!” On 2 Feb 2017, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology released statements opposing the ban on travel to the United States imposed on citizens of 7 countries in the Middle East. “We the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society urgently request that the Trump administration withdraw its Executive Order of 27 January 2017…” “The Board of the Society for Ethnomusicology joins other constituents of the American Council of Learned Societies in calling for the immediate retraction of the U.S. Executive Order of January 27, 2017…” SMT, in contrast, released a statement of “values” on Feb 3: “The Executive Board of the Society for Music Theory reaffirms the society’s values of inclusivity and diversity, open and respectful dialogue, academic freedom, and scholarly integrity.” SMT Executive Board’s statement, coming hot on the heels of statements from its sister societies, is clearly inspired by the same Executive Order, yet board members seem to feel that it was necessary to main plausible deniability. If SMT were a person, we could imagine it saying, “I’m not racist because I’m friends with African music!” Just as it is in a sense easier to just analyze world music rather than to do the work of understanding cultural others, it is easier to analyze world music than to make a stand for people of the world. Could it be that music theory has arrived at a formalistic response to New Musicology’s liberal agenda—by focusing on the musical form rather than cultural content of others? Perhaps if queer were a country, queer music theory would be a thing by now.

2) “‘Where are you from?’ is a racist question.” What if in an alternate universe, Agawu’s SMT keynote address is to be given instead by a noted music theorist of Syrian birth, who in addition to having authored key texts in North American music theory, is also a noted scholar of Syrian music, and is now banned from traveling to the US to give a keynote address at an SMT conference? The fact that this scenario has to be set in an alternate universe is telling, highlighting the near-total invisibility of Middle Eastern music theorists, and of scholarship on Middle Eastern music within both SMT and AMS. It used to be the case that “Where are you from?” was understood within the context of privilege, where an American-born Syrian, for instance, might resist the implication of radical otherness in that question. For those of us trying to gain entry to the US under a Trump administration, however, “Where are you from?” is no longer a discursive act but carries the full police force of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, witnessed horrifically recently.

Might music theorists wish to focus more attention on political readings that arise out of music theory, as well as politics per se, as we move forward under a Trump administration which has promised itself to be the negation of the spirit of a whole host of SMT standing committees and interest groups: Committee on Diversity, Committee on the Status of Women, Music and Disability Interest Group, Queer Resource Group, Scholars for Social Responsibility, just to name the more obvious ones?

Gavin Lee (PhD, Duke 2014) is Assistant Professor at Soochow University, China. He has chaired AMS, SMT, and SEM conference sessions, and resists forces that seek to re-inscribe disciplinary divisions.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Value of Collaboration

By Olivia Bloechl, Katherine Butler Schofield, and Gabriel Solis

This is a jointly authored post, and we’ve opted to sign our contributions, because we’re speaking from our different disciplinary and individual experiences. We’re thinking through collaborative ways of working aloud with you, as much as with each other, and we hope this transparent format will show both individual contribution, as well as how dialogue helps to build ideas that are genuinely collective.

Olivia Bloechl (OB): As a music historian, I’m used to working alone. Like many other musicologists, I came to our field as a classical musician, trained into solitary work early on through hours spent at the piano. My doctoral program reinforced this habit of solitude by rewarding me for my work as an individual researcher. After graduating I was hired at a prominent research university, given tenure there and full professorship at another great university, based largely on my single-author work.

So here’s why I’m rethinking how I do historical research going forward. Lately I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with two ethnomusicologists, Katherine Butler Schofield and Gabriel Solis, who’ve agreed to dialogue with me here. We’re working together to develop a body of critical theory for research on global music history and, especially, to foster work in this area by emerging scholars. From what we’ve seen, doing good music history on a larger geocultural scale is becoming truly viable, perhaps for the first time, and that’s really exciting.

Trying to theorize, let alone carry out large-scale research like this on one’s own doesn’t make much sense, though. (A reality that is tacitly acknowledged with recent collaborative projects in this area led by Philip Bohlman, Reinhard Strohm, and Katherine Schofield.) Of course, as global music history gains traction, scholars will want to contribute individually, and those in early career stages may not have much choice. (A former university of mine routinely asks faculty to submit a memo specifying their “unique and essential contribution” to any collaborative publications.) Still, it’s hard to imagine how the solo mode of intellectual labor that is so normalized is actually best for creating knowledge, especially on this scale.

Katherine Butler Schofield (KBS): The absolute preference for single authorship in music studies remains an issue to be resolved in the UK too, where big collaborative projects in the arts and humanities funded by external grants have become much more normal in the past ten years, and early-career researchers are pushed hard to apply for them. They may be regarded as prestigious, and institutions certainly like the substantial money attached, but promotions panels still prize the single-authored monograph, even over single-Principal-Investigator grants in seven figures. (My advice to early-career scholars is to get your book out first!)

Gabriel Solis (GS): Ethnomusicology has a complicated history where research collaboration is concerned. I, like many of us, cut my teeth on collaborative practice making music in pop, R&B, and jazz bands. I came to view making music as a process of dialogue and mutual editing (if not always without a measure of conflict). At its best, the primary method of ethnomusicology—musical ethnography—involves a similar ethos of collaboration. Our work grows in dialogue with our interlocutors. The topic of my current project, for instance, on the history of African American and West Indian musical styles in Indigenous communities of the Southwestern Pacific, was not one I developed myself. Rather, it emerged out of conversations with Aboriginal dancers in Sydney (at NAISDA) that were part of an entirely different project.

Many of us become the students of master musicians and dancers in our field sites, and continue to defer to the expertise of our teachers in many instances. This relationship has led to work that is legitimately collaborative, even if it has not always had co-credited authorship (I think here, for instance, of Bruno Nettl's work on the Radif of Persian music with Nour-Ali Boroumand). And yet, most of us are well aware of the power differences that typically inflect ethnographic encounters, the substantial differences in interests between ourselves and the communities and artists we work with, and how powerful the old model of the heroic anthropologist is. We have lots of ways of more fully representing the dialogic quality of our work, but a truly collaborative model is still as much ideal as accomplishment.

OB: I agree. I also think though that, whether we work in the field or the archive, we need other thinkers and practitioners more than we musicologists tend to believe. That may be reason enough to risk collaboration, even if it falls short of our ideals. This is especially obvious in the case of global music history. The prospect of trying on my own to acquire, say, a working knowledge of Hindi, Persian, Tok Piksin, or Urdu; facility with Indian notations; or an encyclopedic jazz knowledge—to name a few of my collaborators’ skills—is a clear argument for the advantages of working together. Yet there’s also a strong case for collaboration as a best practice in other kinds of historical research too. Just because we can work with documentary or material sources on our own doesn’t mean we always should. Often, putting our heads together can produce better results. More importantly, perhaps, good collaboration can make the process of creating knowledge better. 

KBS: Absolutely. Think of peer review, of literature review, of teachers and mentors. Scholarship is a polyphonic dialogue, not a solo improv, into which our own voice only ever enters part-way through. And yet, overt collaboration doesn’t come naturally in our disciplines. Scientists create and write together (often using apps like Overleaf) as a matter of course—but we are never taught how to write with other people, and more often than not we have been dissuaded from it. Thinking together before putting fingers to keyboard is in many ways even harder, and requires us to revisit our normative ways of working from scratch. What helps is having models of how to work and write collaboratively in the arts and humanities. I have been very lucky to have two of the best mentors a woman could ask for: the Hindi literature scholar Francesca Orsini; and the historian Margrit Pernau. Both of them still write single-authored works of great accomplishment. But they have for decades spent much of their time drawing together groups of people to answer bigger and more complicated questions than are possible to answer alone.

They start from the premise that collaboration is the best way to answer big questions, and think first about what kinds of work, people, and skills are needed in order to arrive at a set of possible answers. And then they ask those people to join them. The most important lesson I have learned is that even scholars who hate each other can work productively together if the big question is kept paramount and the organizer refuses to allow egos and politics to dominate. Generally people are brought together to discuss through workshops and conferences, at which important threads are drawn together through full-group discussion, leading to a collaborative volume. This can take the form of standard edited volumes; or it can be genuinely co-written, such as the series of volumes that the Max Planck Institute has published with Oxford University Press.

As for my own project, working closely as a team with eleven other researchers on a joint venture has been the most richly rewarding research experience of my career. The insights you gain from bringing several brains together, all with different skills and backgrounds, are genuinely phenomenal. To give you one example, several members of my team (Julia Byl, David Lunn, Raja Iskandar bin Raja Halid, and Jenny McCallum) are working together on the translation of a Malay narrative poem from the mid nineteenth century that describes processions full of singing, music, dance, and performative competition. David found the manuscript on one of many trips to the Netherlands. Raja translated the basic poem, which is in the Malay version of the Arabic script; but it took Julia (ethnomusicologist: Malay, Batak, local Sumatran dialect), David (literary scholar: Hindi, Urdu) and me (historian: Persian, Urdu) to decode and interpret several important terms that are no longer used, but which testify to the extraordinary trans-oceanic travels of this performance rite and many of its participants around the colonial Indian Ocean.

I won’t scoop my team! But the translation and the article that accompanies it will change the way historians understand a major political turning point in the Straits Settlements, and a key transformation in the way local peoples were viewed and treated by their British overlords. Without the collaboration of a team of scholars from three distinct disciplines working in nine Asian and European languages – and funding from the European Research Council that took the risk that what I proposed to do with a team was worthwhile – none of this would have happened.

OB: Katherine’s experience with European-style collaboration is really valuable, and it suggests that we in North America could take the larger perspective of the “global” as an opportunity to do music history differently. “Differently” may mean making music historical research more routinely critical, inclusively framed, responsive to living communities of stakeholders (especially in decolonial or reparative research, and able to narrate musical pasts in ways that are both “globally concerned” and “locally sensitive.” The multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual nature of this work also suggests transnational collaboration as a best practice, with a concerted effort to move beyond English-language (and, ideally, European-language) dominance.

GS: I couldn’t agree more! Even in the face of funding structures that prioritize solo work this kind of collaboration is important because it allows us to move beyond a model where we—scholars—all share a similar background and training, making our collaboration a matter of pooling subject knowledge within a uniform theoretical framework. This might mean collaborating not only across (sub)disciplines such as ethnomusicology and music history, but also across other divides. Especially collaboration between scholars working in the Global North and the Global South. For me it means working on a collaborative film and co-authored article with one of my ethnographic interlocutors, as well as on a singly-authored monograph.

It is worth acknowledging, too, that even with training and experience, collaborative work is hard. It can be a hassle accommodating yourself to co-authors who may have different commitments, timelines, and expectations than you. The organizational requirements, especially where funding agencies are involved, can be time-consuming and onerous. But it is also difficult in a more important way: it requires relinquishing some measure of our claims to endless expertise, or at least clearly acknowledging their limits – and acknowledging that we have never worked alone.

Olivia Bloechl is Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh.  She is the author of Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008) and Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France (Univ. of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2017), and co-editor (with Melanie Lowe and Jeffrey Kallberg) of Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015). In addition to ongoing work on European opera before 1800, current projects include a feminist philosophical study of music and vulnerability and a long-term collaboration developing theory and protocols for global music history.  [Photo Credit: Elisa Ferrari]

Katherine Butler Schofield is a historian of music and listening in the Mughal Empire and the colonial Indian Ocean, and Senior Lecturer (=Associate Professor) in the Music Department at King’s College London. Working largely with Persian sources for Hindustani music c.1570-1860, in recent research she has established music as central to Mughal technologies of sovereignty and selfhood, identified classicisation processes at work in early-modern Indian arts, examined the role of connoisseurship in nourishing male friendships, told tales about ill-fated courtesans and overweening ustads, and traced the lineage of the chief musicians to the Mughal emperors from Akbar to Bahadur Shah Zafar. She has recently finished a €1.2M European Research Council grant, “Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean” (2011-15), which investigates the ways in which music and dance were transformed c.1750-1900 in the transition from pre-colonial to colonial regimes in India and the Malay world. Her first book, an edited volume with Francesca Orsini, Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature, and Performance in North India, has just been published in a pioneering open-access format by Open Book Press (link here).

Gabriel Solis is Professor of Music, African American Studies, and Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of books on jazz, including Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (University of California Press, 2008) and Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Oxford University Press, 2014), and co-editor with Bruno Nettl of Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society (University of Illinois Press, 2009). His articles on jazz, pop music, the voice, and Indigenous modernity have appeared, among other places, in Ethnomusicology, Musical Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, MusiCultures, and Critical Sociology. He is currently working on a book project titled The Black Pacific, dealing with the history of alliances and affiliations between African Diasporic Musicians and Indigenous musicians in Australia and Melanesia, in part with the support of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Can We Sound Good? (Or, What is Musicology’s Purpose while Teaching under Trump?)

By Kelly Hiser

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students face police while protesting a Donald Trump campaign rally.
Photo credit: Joe Brusky
As I read the contributions to Musicology Now’s “Teaching Under Trump” I kept coming back to a story that Lydia Hamessley told about an American Musicological Society annual meeting in 1988:
“At a Committee on the Status of Women meeting, Rosemary Killam rose in anger when a male audience member … suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night. ‘Oh yes, it is, sir; yes, it is!’ she shouted.”[1]
Under Trump, students and teachers are fearful; fearful for their families, their status, their health care, their lives. Only a single author, James Deaville (who centered the lives of people with disabilities in the series’ final post), addressed the fears of the most marginalized members of our communities. None of the authors discussed the fears of women, LGBTQ people, or people of color. The silence on these issues made me want to shout, like Killam, “this is your problem; yes, it is!”

When campuses are the sites of hate crimes and racist imagery, it is our problem. When students fear deportation for themselves and their families, it is our problem. When international colleagues can no longer safely travel to our country, it is our problem. When students with disabilities struggle to participate in class because of ableist language and structures, it is, as Deaville pointed out, our problem. These are our problems not only because students cannot learn effectively when their basic needs are not met, but also, and more importantly, because we are decent human beings.

In his 2016 book, Just Vibrations, William Cheng quotes Hamessley’s story about that 1988 AMS meeting and challenges readers to hear Killam’s yes, it is, as a “disciplinary rallying cry,” one that allows us to “envision musicology as all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicology community.”[2] Cheng asks musicologists—a discipline of scholars intent on both exploring sound and “sounding good” themselves—”what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn’t to do well, but to do good?”

Introducing the “Teaching Under Trump” series, Louis Epstein identified a central question that inspired the series: “what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment?” [emphasis mine] What if, instead, we asked ourselves what response was good? What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose? We might graffiti over those swastikas instead of walking past them. We might petition administrations to offer strong statements of support to our marginalized community members and to back those statements up with action—something Deaville did along with students in his seminar on music and disability. We might make strong statements of support in our own classrooms. We might offer assistance (tracking down legal help, providing connections to campus health resources, locating potential places of sanctuary) to students who seek it.

If we wish to do good as musicologists, we must also recognize our discipline’s historic and ongoing complicity in white supremacist structures that enabled a Trump Presidency. According to a 2007 demographic survey, at least 86% of AMS members are white, while as little as 1% are black and 3% “Hispanic/Latino.” In the 2010 US census, those numbers were 72%, 13%, and 16% respectively. Demographic numbers like these are the result of white supremacist power structures; they are not accidental, not for musicology, and not for other academic disciplines with similar demographics (of which there are many). Nor is it accidental that the “Teaching Under Trump” series exclusively featured the writing of tenure-track white professors working at prestigious institutions and included only one woman. Those professors knew one another well enough to participate in “Facebook-facilitated conversations among musicologists.” As an anonymous commenter to MN noted: “Research shows that our personal social media communities tend to be fairly homogenous and algorithms determine what people see in their feeds.” Power structures tend to instantiate themselves; musicologists and the AMS are not immune.

When we uncritically participate in those power structures, we insulate musicology’s concerns with our own limited worldviews. If we wish to do good, we must do better than this. We could start by turning to the work of our colleagues of color who have been showing us how to live, work, and teach under oppressive regimes for a long time. We don’t have to figure this out from scratch, nor should we: we lack the wisdom, tradition, and experience. Let’s instead turn to W.E.B. DuBois, to bell hooks, to Ashon Crawley, to Tricia Rose, to Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., to Tammy Kernodle, and to many others in and outside of musicology. By looking and listening to their words, we can, perhaps, let go of our desire to be appropriate and instead start learning how to sound—and do—good.

Kelly Hiser holds a PhD in Historical Musicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; her research focuses on performance, technology, gender, and race in the US. She has taught in classrooms and at pianos for many years and currently directs Rabble, a startup that builds digital local music collections with public libraries.

[1] Lydia Hamessley, “How Did This All Start? Toward a History of the Feminist Theory and Music Phenomenon,” 2009, 2015,
[2] William Cheng, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New “Work in Progress” Series

The editorial team at Musicology Now is excited to launch a new interactive feature, which we're calling Work in Progress. Given the long gestation time of academic writing, and the deliberate rhythms of scholarly publishing, interesting musicological work is almost always "in progress"—and unless one happens to run into the right person at the right place at the right time, not easily accessible to inquiring minds inside and outside the field.

Musicology Now would like to provide a reader-driven forum for the exchange of information about in-progress research.

So here's the question for our readership:  who would you like to hear from? We'll take our orders from you, and armed with the knowledge that inquiring minds want to know, solicit informal updates from scholars and writers in all areas and at all levels and stages of the profession, and adorn them with links and other information to keep you informed and entertained.

To set the process in motion, please send your suggestions to We will filter and anonymize the queries, so don't be shy!

And, to whet your appetite, here’s the first such report, from Joe Auner, who is currently Professor of Music and Academic Dean for the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Auner, a former Vice-President of the AMS, is well-known for his work on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and for a continuing interest in larger questions raised by the interaction of music and technology. He will be familiar to many readers of this blog as one of the editors of a much-cited 2001 essay collection, Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought. He recently was instrumental in organizing 2016’s Utopian Listening, a three-day international conference on the late electroacoustic music of Luigi Nono.

We asked him to tell us what he was up to right about now.


Work in Progress:  Joe Auner

A lot of my writing and teaching has been exploring what happens when you put questions of the relationship of music and technology at the center of an inquiry. Of course, all music is deeply bound up with technology; while it is easy to think of technology as something modern and electronic, all music instruments are technologies, just as is musical notation, and according to some definitions of “technology,” even the whole notion of music itself. But I would argue that our involvements with music technologies, and technologies in general, are taking on a different character in recent decades as we remake our sense of self, our bodies, and how we experience the world around us through our interactions with ever more elaborate and rapidly evolving global information networks.

These technological interests relate in part to my early obsessions with synthesizers and the ambition to be a recording engineer that dominated my college years. But they became more central through the gradual realization that many of the musicological tools I had acquired in graduate school could illuminate—and in turn be illuminated by—their application to sound technologies and the music that they enabled.  Along the way, my work on such topics as “technostalgia,” vocal samples and artificial voices, electronic music and historical performance practice, and the relationship of sound technology to new conceptions of harmony, have led me to a range of other theoretical models and approaches--and luckily also a way to justify acquiring quite a bit of gear!

Now that I have taken on an administrative role for a few years, it has helped keep me going with my writing—though always more slowly than I would like!—to have a few projects in the works that build upon a set of core ideas. And of course my many fantastic students and colleagues, along with the explosion of new scholarship in the area of music and technology, are continually opening up new angles for investigation.

These days, I am particularly interested in music that seems to splice the composer, performer, and listener into a network that becomes part of the meaning, emotional impact, and material of the piece.  My article “Reich on Tape: the Performance of Violin Phase,” coming out in a special “tape” issue of Twentieth Century Music, starts with the performance diagram in the score which puts the tape recorder and an engineer right on stage with the violinist. Tape and tape loops were obviously important to Reich’s early development, but drawing on archival materials at the Paul Sacher Stiftung, I argue that long after he stopped working with tape and moved into the digital realm and sampling, the materiality of tape still shapes his creative practice. And as we recognize how central devices like the tape machine (and headphones, microphones. etc.) were to the creative process and performance, it opens up questions of how the work is performed today, now that the elaborate process of creating the basic tape loop as described in the score is typically replaced by the use of a looping pedal or software.

Related issues of performance practice were the focus of a festival I helped organize this year exploring the extraordinary body of music that Luigi Nono produced during the last decade of his life in the 1980s as the availability of digital processing suddenly dramatically expanded the possibilities of real-time manipulation of sound. For Nono this was far more than just a new compositional resource; rather, live electronics opened up a whole new way of composing, notating, performing, and experiencing music that involved intensive interaction with engineers, devices, specific spaces, and performers willing to radically reconceive their instruments. The focus of the festival was how we should respond to the considerable challenges of performing this music today in the face of increasingly rapid technological change.

Most recently, I have been exploring live looping performance in several areas of popular music in the context of a broader study of music and/as feedback loops. The notion of a feedback loop is arguably the central metaphor of our time, as evidenced by the way it can be taken up in so many different contexts and theoretical frameworks.  But what I find interesting about live looping performances is how they stage networks of feedback loops in very visible and audible ways with music that is itself made entirely of loops. In the case of live looping performance, looping pedals function as the central node in manifold networks of feedback loops connecting humans and machines, live and recorded sound, professional and amateur musicians, the design and marketing of music technologies, and the interpenetration of private and public spaces through social media.

The musicality of live looping performances also depends in a peculiar way on the almost instantaneous feedback loop between what the musician is doing live and their recorded selves. Whether on stage or alone in their studios, musicians are required to perform a passage as if it were already a recording, and with the knowledge that it will in fact be a recording almost immediately. Feedback loops can of course have both positive and negative attributes, in terms of self-regulating interactive systems or loops closing in on themselves or spinning dangerously out of control. Similarly, while the interaction with music technologies can be a pathway to becoming more fully ourselves and more fully human, there is also a long history of the fears and attractions of becoming more like a machine. For Reich, who characterizes his early loop based music as “realizations of an idea that was indigenous to machines,” or for composers and musicians trying to play like player pianos or drum machines, such feedback loops can serve as microcosms for helping us understand the broader ramifications and implications of all our interactions with our beloved devices.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Community College Calling

Christine Gengaro
My last year in graduate school at the University of Southern California was my third year teaching at community colleges. I taught at three different community colleges that year (Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles) in various capacities. In the midst of writing my dissertation, while also working at a research assistantship at USC and “freeway flying” (a freelancers’ term for being occupied by near-constant driving in pursuit of a livelihood), a full-time job opened up at Los Angeles City College (LACC). Although it wasn’t in music history, it was in voice, a field in which I'd earned a Master's. But I wanted that big musicology job where I could immerse myself in research and publish books. Over the next year, two things happened: my body and mind became worn out by freeway flying, and LACC did not find anyone for the open position in voice. When they re-opened the position, I was still reluctant, but I put in an application anyway (on the very last day, if I recall).
While there was a clear disparity between what I'd imagined—a musicology job at a research university much like USC—and the very different conditions that came with community college teaching, the benefits of the latter were undeniable: the trunk of my car would no longer double as an office; I could work in one place instead of braving LA traffic driving to three jobs; perhaps most importantly, I could build relationships with students instead of always running off to the next gig. The pay and benefits were also impressive, as community college teachers in California, and especially in LA, benefit from a strong union that sets starting salaries at a consistently high level. Suddenly I found myself with a full-time job, money in the bank for the first time since leaving a middle school teaching job, full health coverage, and my own office. And the job was a mile away from my apartment (it is hard to overstate how much proximity can mean in LA).
Despite this, when I first started, I was at war with myself internally. Had I sold out? Was the siren song of the steady paycheck luring me away from my passion for musicology? Should I stay or keep applying for that elusive musicology job? At the outset I gave myself eight years. I reasoned that it was a good period of service to offer the school, and I thought my prospects for getting another job would grow in that amount of time. Yet during that window, multiple factors gradually cemented my commitment to LACC. Two years in, the global recession began, and I watched programs all over LA (and the rest of the country) cut classes, and adjunct teachers lose their jobs. Four years in, I was granted tenure with little fanfare--most full-timers are given tenure as long as they’ve done their jobs and received “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations” on their yearly reviews. Along the way, public awareness about student loans increased, as the amount of student debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high, with new graduates not finding the jobs to pay back the investment.
These financial issues were especially disturbing to me. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships and assistantships for all of my schooling, and I worried about the students who didn’t have the same opportunities. I saw first-hand my students' financial struggles, and they were paying just $46 a credit (if they were paying at all). Compare that to the $1000+ a credit some schools charge, and the lack of financial assistance those schools offer outside of loans, and it became increasingly clear that I had a personal and political alignment with the community college mission. Community colleges provide quality educations to people, some right out of high school, and some who postponed college at eighteen in order to work full-time or otherwise support a family. Most of our students have jobs; many have children or parents they care for; some come back to school after successful careers in other fields. So when I hit that eight-year mark, I realized that I didn’t want to leave. I love my job. I’ve loved it for a decade. I love my students. I am inspired every day. I’m delighted to be part of an institution that values student success. I recently served on three search committees for new faculty members, and the competition for these positions was fierce.
LACC serves around twenty thousand students every semester, with about half of those aiming for transfer to a four-year school. Many of our students are receiving some form of financial aid. Some of our special programs include remedial Math and English classes, ESL, a program for emancipated foster youth, and a high school concurrency program. LACC is part of a nine-school district, and the student body is one of the most diverse in the world. In 2015, our student population was 49% Hispanic/Latino, 18% White, 17.2% Asian/Pacific Islander, 10.4% African American, and 5.3% other/unknown. The median age of our students is 30-something, although the music majors skew quite a bit younger.
The professors in my department are contractually obligated to teach fifteen hours a week. To my younger self, that would have seemed like a barbaric amount of teaching, but it’s manageable, especially since some of these are performance classes. Currently, I do about a third of my hours in online classes. I am a member of the Curriculum Committee and I am the Student Learning Outcome coordinator for my department, meaning I provide support for my colleagues as we evaluate our students’ progress in meeting the objectives we've chosen for our classes and our programs. SLOs are required for accreditation in institutions across the country. The administrative stuff sometimes takes up more time than I like, of course, but I am happy to be part of shared governance.
Our transfer students may move on to local or more distant schools in the CSU and Cal State system, but we’ve also sent music majors to San Francisco Conservatory, Columbia, and USC. Last year, the music department received a $10.1 million grant from the Herb Alpert Foundation, the largest private gift to a community college in Southern California history. Soon we will be changing our name to the Herb Alpert Music Center and offering full scholarships to our music majors.
My school offers a travel stipend for one conference a year, usually taken up by the Music Association of California Community Colleges conference, but I still attend AMS at my own expense whenever possible. Because of the intensity of my teaching schedule, it is more difficult when the meetings are on the east coast, but I am energized by the papers and panels and the interaction with colleagues from around the world.
My original plan—to do research and publish—is alive and well, although my focus is now more on doing work that is widely accessible. Publishing is not a requirement of my job, but it turns out that I am highly self-motivated (I would argue that this is a crucial characteristic for any community college professor who wants to publish). With no one breathing down my neck, I am free to pick and choose my projects and write at my own pace. I will be editing my first volume next year, and meanwhile have written two textbooks for use by our beginning theory students; published my first book in 2013 (with my second forthcoming this year), written chapters on film music, and presented at conferences in the U.S. and abroad.[i] This is not the path I envisioned fifteen years ago, but it’s a far richer experience than I could have imagined when I began.

Christine Gengaro is an educator and musician based in Los Angeles. She’s taught at Los Angeles City College for over a decade. An enthusiastic writer and researcher, she’s been program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber orchestra since 2007, and her second book is coming out later this year.

[i] Christine Gengaro, Experiencing: Chopin, Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2017; and Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, Rowman and Littlefield, 2013.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Music History for Engineers

(Ed. note: This is the second of three posts this week that launch a recurring series on teaching in a range of institutions.)

David Chapman, Jr.

“He was an engineer! A mathematician!! What the devil! Sensitivity lurks in the oddest nooks!” 
from the memoirs of Hector Berlioz[i]

I teach at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. As its first and only tenure-track music professor, I teach all of the Institute’s academic music courses, from history and culture to theory and composition. Rose, as we affectionately call it, is a top-ranked, private, undergraduate-focused STEM school with a student body of about 2,200. Although fundamentally career- and industry-oriented, Rose nevertheless seeks to provide its students with a “liberal education in science and engineering.”[ii] The faculty of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), comprising 27 professors in 17 fields, provides the principal components of this liberal education. Before I took the job in 2013, teaching music history at an engineering school was never my professional aim, nor was I especially trained for it, but I have come to embrace the special opportunities and challenges of presenting the arts within a STEM curriculum.

The music program is older and larger than it might seem, even to many on our campus. Rose was founded in 1874 as an all-male polytechnic institute and our first music ensembles originated as student clubs in the late 1880s. Rose’s first music professor followed soon thereafter: Carrie Belle Adams (1859–1940), a local organist and reasonably accomplished hymn and operetta composer, directed the ensembles and taught music classes just after the fin de siècle. Rose remained a stubborn relic of the sex-segregated Victorian era of higher education for well over a century, and Ms. Adams was among the very few women to whose teaching and leadership the young men of Rose would have submitted themselves at that time.

Today, several excellent and dedicated directors lead our student ensembles. With no applied faculty, these directors provide many of our students their only practical instruction in instrumental technique. Our music minors take four courses in music history and theory and four quarters of performance in the ensembles. Hatfield Hall, our performing arts theater, offers diverse musical programming throughout the year, featuring guest performers from around the country, an “Engineers in Concert” all-campus talent show, and two musical theater productions by our student drama club every year. Taken together, the music courses, the ensembles, the minor, and the events at Hatfield Hall make up the Rose music program.

As an administrator of sorts over my own curriculum, I enjoy nearly complete autonomy over my teaching. Student enthusiasm for music courses remains high: when you teach only electives, your students sign up because they want to be there! I divide my courses in music history — or, perhaps more accurately, music appreciation — into periodic subgroupings: Medieval and Renaissance; Baroque, Classical, and Romantic; the 20th Century, my best outlet for teaching around my research specialty in New York minimalism; and “Popular Music in the Era of Recorded Sound,” my only STEM-oriented history course. I continue to experiment with textbooks for these courses, seeking but never quite finding the right balance of content and concept.[iii] For each of these courses, I try to structure the calendar around a handful of required concerts or other relevant events, followed by reflective written responses. For many of my students, these concerts are their first such experiences.

I also “forage” for as much content as possible in the surrounding community. This has included taking groups of students to experience the outstanding private collection of player pianos and rolls owned by my HSS colleague, geography professor Mike Kukral, and to observe the factory floors at Sony DADC, once the headquarters of the Columbia House catalog and the first American manufacturer of compact discs, today a manufacturer of Blu-Ray discs and other optical media. In “Musics of the World,” students conducted simple ethnographic studies on musical practices in local churches, bars, schools, and theaters. In my 20th-century course, my students performed a rendition of Terry Riley’s In C for the campus on the 51st anniversary of its premiere, while I banged out high Cs on the chapel piano for an hour. On course evaluations, which Rose takes very seriously, students have commented favorably on these real-life encounters with music outside the classroom.

I have had mixed results with, and thus I have mixed feelings about, research papers as terminal projects in these courses. The Rose library is staffed by helpful and dedicated professionals, but — and this is surely no surprise or criticism — it has neither deep stacks nor a diverse reference library available for research projects. Thus helping students develop a project bibliography is an especially challenging process made all the more urgent and difficult by our 10-week trimesters. I justify the tremendous effort to work around these obstacles because I believe, as do my colleagues in the HSS department, that writing helps students work through questions of history and meaning, and is a skill that transfers well to other disciplines.

Whereas every course in the Rose music history/appreciation curriculum must be accessible to a general student audience (i.e., they cannot have prerequisites), the two courses in music theory/fundamentals are my only two in which one must precede the other. The first course is an introduction to musical notation, starting with pitch and rhythm and working up to basic tonal analysis; Joseph Straus’ Elements of Music serves these objectives well, with a few supplementary units.[iv] The second course is an analysis and composition workshop focused on simple classical and popular forms, with readings from and William Caplin.[v] Both courses contain some elements of ear training and aural skills, but they stop short of such intermediate topics as part-writing, chromaticism, and large-scale form.

My primary objectives for students who complete the music theory sequence include a printed portfolio of the students’ original compositions and a capstone recital at which I perform their work at the piano. These provide concrete evidence of the more ephemeral and abstract musical knowledge they have acquired over the previous two terms. These are my most popular courses among Rose students, and I speculate that music theory at this fundamental level can feel rigorous and syntactically precise in a way that is familiar to students who are well adapted to studying mathematics or computer programming. (By contrast, and perhaps proving the point, my “Musics of the World” course is never quite as popular.) But engineers are not machines — pace Berlioz! — and many of my students value the fact that music is creative and not quantitative, that music classes are so different from their major coursework. Many of them might have been music majors at some other school, but chose STEM for its job prospects. I can’t say I blame them: very few people get to be music professors at Rose-Hulman!

I cheer recent efforts to celebrate and elevate the arts within STEM curricula, memorably captured in the acronym STEAM. I sometimes fear instrumentalizing the arts, however, denaturing them and reducing their extraordinary multivalence to their mere usefulness to other disciplines. I want my students to study music and the arts not only because those subjects might benefit them in practical (that is, profitable) ways as future scientists and engineers, but also because engineers and scientists can serve musical ends! What we in the HSS Department at Rose-Hulman might miss in disciplinary colleagues, graduate students, majors, and perhaps even prestige within our respective fields, we nevertheless gain in professional autonomy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and student enthusiasm. These were the aspects that attracted me to “Dear Old Rose” in the first place, and why the job at Rose-Hulman continues both to challenge and to charm me today.

David Chapman, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Music at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. He holds degrees in piano performance from Kennesaw State University and in music (history) from the University of Georgia. He received his Ph.D. in 2013 from Washington University in St. Louis, with a dissertation on the early history of the Philip Glass Ensemble, under the guidance of Peter Schmelz.

[i] Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Schirmer, 2008), 299.
[ii] This statement appears in Section 1.03 the Institute’s Faculty Handbook, under the subheading “The Rose-Hulman Philosophy.”
[iii] When I began teaching, I swore by Kerman, Kerman, and Tomlinson’s contextually rich Listen!, then switched to Kelly’s Music Then and Now for its priority of depth over breadth. More recently I began using Forney, Dell’Antonio, and Machlis’s Enjoyment of Music for its short, easily digestible readings and its inclusion of women.
[iv] Joseph Straus, Elements of Music, 3rd edition (Boston, Mass.: Pearson, 2012).
[v] William Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (New York: Oxford UP, 2001); Caplin, Analyzing Classical Form: An Approach for the Classroom (New York: Oxford UP, 2013).

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Very Modern, Major Generalist (at the Conservatory)

(Ed. note: This is the first of three posts this week that launch a recurring series on teaching in a range of institutions.)

Kristi Brown-Montesano

When the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles opened for business in August 2003, I was there. Armed with a highfalutin’ doctoral degree from UC Berkeley and a fair amount of adjunct teaching experience, I was thrilled to be the institution’s first music-history faculty. A division of the Colburn School, the Conservatory ranks with specialized institutions like Juilliard and Curtis in the area of classical instrumental performance. The environment is “boutique,” with a full enrollment of approximately 120, including undergraduate and master’s students; all students are eligible for full scholarship support covering room, board and tuition.
Coming out of Berkeley, I had hoped and expected to be hired as specialist, to leverage my research areas—opera, ethical and feminist criticism, and film music—in the classroom and in publications as part of a tenure portfolio. What a shock, then, when my first directive at Colburn was to create an 8-semester history survey. For several years, I was expected to teach the whole gamut, from Pythagoras to postmodernism, to every undergraduate. I became a damn fine generalist in the process.
Colburn Conservatory offers a peculiarly stimulating context for music-history pedagogy. Some of the obvious advantages, including the location in downtown Los Angeles, are practical. All the students read music and enter with a respectable knowledge of the classical repertoire, which makes it possible to look closely at particular pieces. Students are also real contenders for professional careers as soloists and orchestral players. Over the past 14 years, student concerts have not only enhanced my knowledge of the instrumental repertoire, but consistently offered listening delights. Of course, there have been frustrations, mostly the result of being an academic at a performance school. I've spent a good amount of effort trying to convince applied colleagues who hated music history when they were in college that my courses are not just accreditation requirements, but an added value in terms of artistic training. In order to thrive at Colburn, I’ve had to rethink my understanding of my field and my role as a teacher. Like Haydn at Esterhazy, flexibility and experimentation have been my rules of thumb. I’ve rolled with the growing pains of a new performance school, in particular the structural and philosophical evolutions that obliged me to retool curriculum and teaching strategies every couple of years.
Paradoxically, my generalist transformation has both complemented and counterbalanced the acutely specialized focus of my students. Colburn Conservatory students spend a lot of time in the practice room, alone, endlessly perfecting their technique for a ruthlessly competitive performance culture. They vie with peers for ensemble chairs, awards, and sometimes even the favor of an applied teacher. Orchestra and chamber music offer a more collaborative dynamic, but one that still centers on their primary skill set: playing like a boss.  
I see my music-history classes as a different kind of ensemble performance: improvisation is encouraged, the work is open-ended and is not strictly defined in terms of a student’s instrument. The astonishing concentration that Colburn students bring to their craft sometimes causes a proportional narrowing of their perspective and comfort zone. Early on I discovered, for instance, that student musicians are often myopic score readers, zeroing in on their own part, an unconscious reflex developed over years. Scanning the whole score for interesting details (what’s up with the weird horn solo in the third movement of the Ninth Symphony?)—is a relatively new experience.
The hyper-specialized, competitive environment of the conservatory also generates a riptide of anxiety, fear of making mistakes, of being judged as less than brilliant, of doing anything that might interfere with their main objective. As an antidote, I encourage students to “practice” big-picture thinking, writing and discussion; in my classes, they engage not only as performers, but as listeners, conductors, critics, theorists, historians, and citizens of the world. Sometimes they flub the notes, so to speak; no problem, so do I (and they witness that!). It’s all good. The important thing is that they become more comfortable with debate and disagreement, with asking tricky questions like “Do we need another recording of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto? Why? In fact, why do people listen to classical music? Who pays for it? Who has power over it? Do I have a political responsibility as an artist?”
My favorite course to teach at Colburn is “Music since 1945.” I love the freshness of it—the music and ideas that are relatively unknown to my students, and the aesthetics that challenge their tolerance. The dominant concert repertoire at the Colburn Conservatory is staunchly canonic, concentrated on the Mozart–to-Mahler spectrum. A few relative outliers like Telemann and Shostakovich get attention, but more categorically early or contemporary works are notably missing from most applied-studio playlists. Even after all these years, the Colburn Contemporary Ensemble is still mostly a voluntary, student-driven initiative under the directorship of our percussion faculty.  
This past fall, four intrepid and wickedly talented undergraduate string players decided—on their own!—to present Crumb’s Black Angels as part of the Contemporary Ensemble concert. I was over the moon, since my love for that piece goes back to my own undergraduate days when I studied composition with Crumb student, Andrew Frank. Every year, I dedicate a full lecture to Black Angels, my students gathering around the oversize score as we explore the musical, philosophical, and technical drama of Crumb’s string quartet in tempore belli. I was so excited to “coach” the violinist on her introductory remarks and written program notes; the group even invited me to the final rehearsal to give feedback. As one of few faculty members who attended the concert, I watched the performance with a deep sense of satisfaction and pride.
So there it is: one of my primary objectives as a teacher at Colburn is to nurture and bear witness to the authentic curiosity and sense of adventure that inspired those students to take on Black Angels. That’s what keeps me charged, year after year: encouraging students to take the steering wheel and even head off-road. I think of the violinist who became inspired after hearing Andrew Manze’s recording of a Marini sonata and studying baroque tunings in one of my classes. I supported her successful Fulbright application to go to the Netherlands, where she studied connections between avant-garde Italian music and seventeenth-century stylus phantasticus music. And there’s the trombone alumnus who asked me to edit his original script, an introduction to music for the very young, featuring his trombone ensemble. (He’s now collaborating on a musical graphic novel!.) Every undergraduate and most master’s students at Colburn will have come through my classroom. And, in the final count, they are all my students.

Kristi Brown-Montesano, Chair of Music History at the Colburn Conservatory of Music, received her Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, with a specialization in 18th-century western European music. A trained vocalist, she is the author of Understanding The Women of Mozart's Operas (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2007). She has presented and published on opera, classical music in film, trends in marketing classical music to children, and the violin as a literary topic in late 19th-century England.