Friday, November 30, 2007

Not So Guilty Pleasures (Cross-Post)

I was invited to guest blog over at Musicology/Matters, and was given permission to cross post. So for those of you who may not frequent musicology blogs, but for various and sundry reasons visit this one, I give you:

Not So Guilty Pleasures

Phil and Kariann have offered astute and engaging ideas about this business of "guilty pleasures" and their place in musicology. I will try to offer something fresh and original as a musicologist who specializes in music that is considered by many to be a true guilty pleasure (witness the confessional Facebook group: "I listen to sacred choral/organ music...AND I LIKE IT!").

At my first meeting of the Society for American Music (mmph years ago), I remember a certain musicologist imploring at the business meeting: "Don't do pop music because it is trendy, do it because it is what you love." (That's a paraphrase, actually.). This statement was greeted with defensive grumbles and nasty whispers as if he had insinuated that pop music scholars were just in it for the trendiness aspect.

That's not it at all, but clearly he exposed some people sitting in that room. I am not a pop music scholar, but his comment made me think about the music that I love. Even though "choral music" can include Haydn's Die Schöpfung, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, not to mention of a whole slew of medieval and Renaissance masterpieces, it also includes a plethora of short, two to three page cream puffs written for various church choirs and other choral ensembles. It is true that there is often little intellectual mileage to be found in Joe Smith's arrangement of Amazing Grace or Jane Brown's 16 measure introit written for the shoestring choir at St. Anne's-By-The-Lake.* Much of this is Gebrauchsmusik and the composers of said music couldn't care less what musicologists think of it (and rightfully so). Unfortunately, because the label "choral music" includes ALL of this, it often gets excluded from the list of acceptable areas for academic discourse. Medieval and Renaissance choral works get sheltered by the historical musicology crowd and the love for the old. Choral works of Bach, Mozart, and Haydn are extolled as works of Bach, Mozart and Haydn. Most of the choral music of the Romantic period is seen as an example of Romantic ideologies of excess (Berlioz, Verdi) or those occasional studies in harmonic adventure.

That brings us to my area of specialty: twentieth-century American sacred music. Truth be told, it is actually "twentieth and twenty-first- century," but when I tried the label "contemporary" I opened up a door I couldn't shut quickly enough. Rushing toward me came numerous requests to review "O Taste and See" for guitar and folk singer, or CDs by Jars of Clay, or questions about preferences for Amy Grant vs. Rebecca St. James. I could say "modern," but that also opens up its own can of worms. A rose is clearly not a rose when it comes to academic labels.

Not only do I specialize in such a loaded and quixotic category of music, I wrote my dissertation on the impact of the Second Vatican Council on the American Concert Mass. Sexy? No. Misunderstood? Yes. See the following dialogue:

Prof. X: Ah! So you do folk masses.
RM: No. I'm looking at traditional Latin Masses (or Latin-inspired masses) written for the concert hall as responses to Vatican II.
Prof: X: Oh. That's interesting. What composers? Any I might have heard of?
RM: Leonard Bernstein (a Jew), Paul Creston (a very eclectic Catholic) and Lou Harrison (a Buddhist)
Prof. X: (Stunned silence).

Which brings me to my point. We as musicologists need to define to what extent musicology involves musical advocacy. I thought it was important to show that there existed a strong aesthetic reaction to the post-Vatican II liturgical mass, by mainstream composers lying outside of the Church and its particular interests. Do I love sacred choral music? Yes. Do I feel at all guilty about it? No. Would I have been able to spend mmpph years working on a dissertation if I didn't love it? Absolutely not.

I don't think we should have to negotiate personal taste and intellectual duty to any degree that we might find ourselves writing about music for which we care little (either about the music itself or its historical context). Anyone who has ever taught music appreciation will tell you that half the trick is one's own enthusiasm for the music. What kind of artifice are we encouraging if we relegate entire categories of music to the musicological trash-heap? If I write about music, whether it be Steve Reich's Different Trains, Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum, or the Clash's album London Calling (to pull a few examples from the recent AMS conference), I had better believe that there's something there worth writing about and worth sharing with the community at large. That is both our personal duty and our intellectual duty. And while I'm not advocating a "Who Cares if you Listen?" approach to musicology, I am proposing that our own love for the music be enough, and the work we do will speak for itself.

Not everything we love as music listeners will have musicological value, and it is important to recognize that. (How we determine that value is worthy of a fresh round of blog posts.) However, as academicians, we should be defining academe, not the other way around. And in regard to this endeavor, I suggest that the sky be the limit. Let us welcome guilty pleasures and intellectual constructs alike, so that we can be true to what brought us here in the first place, rather than be enslaved to a limited canon.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Quick Plug: New Musicology Blog!

It is a concert weekend, so I'm running around, but I at the very least wanted to point out a new musicology blog!

Please visit and read the wonderful offerings at:

Musicology Matters

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Too Many Papers, Not Enough Time: AMS 2007 Wrap-Up

In the past, there have been AMS conferences where I was more of a tourist than a conference attendee. My first conference was "Musical Intersections" in Toronto back in 2000, and the convergence of fifteen musical societies was a bit more than my virgin musicological heart could handle. Toronto is a lovely city. I can particularly recommend the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Then there have been the times of musicological malaise, most noticeably during my dissertating years. I wandered through paper sessions more or less on automatic pilot. I was at those papers to see and be seen. "See me, Dr. X? I'm here listening to your paper. I'll expect a gold star." I'd converse at the receptions. "Oh, and what is your dissertation on?" Press "play." Followed by either a look of total incredulity or a sudden keen interest in the exquisite deviled eggs.

And then, there was this year. Freshly armed with a PhD, I realized I had more to talk about than just my dissertation. It was freeing to use the past tense when the subject came up. I could talk about my current projects and my adjunct teaching. I think I surprised a few people who had long been accustomed to hearing about The Document and only, The Document.

I found myself in sessions where I would have seldom tread in prior years. I no longer felt alien in a medieval session, or guilty about missing one or two papers in my area (especially when the conflict was another paper). AMS once again felt like a smorgasbord of opportunity, and it did not disappoint. I remembered a time, long ago, that I wanted to be a MedievalBaroqueRenaissanceTwentiethCentury Specialist. I felt the sweet disappointment of having too many options.

I saw a lot of phenomenal papers and some good ones. My attendance choices supported friends, former professors, and fed my general intellectual curiosity. And with all these choices, I missed quite a bit, including Ryan Banagale and Phil Ford's presentations, graciously reproduced on their respective blogs.

I'd like to thank everyone involved in this year's conference, from the organizers to the presenters. For the first time in many years, I did not muse about how different my life would be had I chosen International Relations.

For those of you who are interested, see also Phil Gentry's AMS Wrap-Up
and Jonathan Bellman's information on Disinformation.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Crack for Academics: AMS 2007 Post I

Greetings from Quebec City! This will be necessarily brief, as I hope to catch Margot Fassler's paper, "Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum: Theological Meanings and the Problem of Audience."

The highlight of the conference thus far (for me) was the Lecture-Demonstration: "Virtual Acoustics and the Recording of Joseph Haydn's Keyboard Music." While I had to miss the last half hour, I enjoyed the convergence of auditory and acoustic technology with musicology and aesthetics. The discussion brought up questions of authencity: Is it ok to be "inauthentic" yet strive for a different acoustic experience then what one would normally hear? Tom Beghin and his colleagues from McGill have tried to create recordings (through the recreation of original instruments and the virtual reproduction of acoustic environments) which emulate a historical listening experience. Yes, it is idealized and unmuddied by the realities that plagued Lobkowitz Palace and other such locations, but one does not buy a CD of Haydn keyboard sonatas so that they can hear the cook chasing the scullery maid in the background.

One of the better problems to have at a conference is wanting to be in three places at the same time. And while I was not "drinking at the opening-night reception" (or at least not at that moment), I did have to miss Phil Ford and friends during the Committee on Career-Related Issues. How lucky we are that Phil has reproduced his presentation over at Dial M, helping to make his point quite effectively. If blogging is "crack for academics" then I'm all for the addiction.


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea