Sunday, December 16, 2007

Winter Recess

Musicology matters, but so does one's sanity. Thus, Phil and I are taking a well-needed break. I am wrapping up phase II of my fieldwork while Phil's wedding planning has taken over his life. Forgive our silence, but we will start again with the new year.

In the meantime, if you really wish some ethno/musicology forum out in the interwebs would start a discussion about a particular topic, drop us a line! We have a few themes in the works for the new year, but we are always open to good conversations.

And with that, I hope all enjoy the rest of your holidays! Boas festas!

Friday, December 7, 2007


I remember back in my first term ever as a grad student at a different university, our prof made us spend an entire week thinking about--not doing--transcription and translation. For that quarter of "World Music Perspectives," transcription and translation had to go together because a culturally sensitive scholar of whatever breed would fret about the power dynamics that encapsulate translating music, sounds and language into text. That whole term I was terrified to write as I tried to forget I thought I knew about music. It was quite the hurdle to overcome.

Yet, here I am, doing interview transcriptions and translations and musical transcriptions, all in the service of my dissertation. And again, I feel my own terror rising. I know we in musicology and ethnomusicology are a little tired of that music/language discussion. (How many times have you read "Music is the universal language" at the start of a sad undergraduate paper?) But I do think one area where the two converge in really interesting ways is transcription/translation. When I transcribe interviews I make a number of choices. Do I represent the "pausing" words like "um" (or in Portuguese, "ou")? Do I include moments when people stutter? How about sentence breaks? These are all really important questions that fundamentally underscore the limits of translating spoken language to written communication. I know that when I transcribe popular music, the hardest things I have representing are things that fall between the cracks of standard notation: especially timbre, but also micro-tones, extended techniques, and the use of stereophonics. And I feel similarly frustrated with the tools we have at our disposal, but they are all that we have.

I know that this process of transcription/translation is really important. When I transcribe, I listen to the same information repeatedly and I can really get inside my subject's speech patters. I learn so much about a person by the filler they choose in their sentences. I can tell when they are thinking or when they are uncomfortable. It is a kind of intimacy that one cannot capture in conversation; most people don't hear speech in phonemes but rather in chunks of words. In general, we have been trained to grasp larger ideas and rhetoric, not the minutiae of sentence-level decisions. For me, speech transcription is similar to closely studying recorded or live music because in that moment of the first encounter, one's attention isn't paying attention to every single detail. And doing analysis on a first listen is nearly impossible. Elisabeth LeGuin's essay "One Bar in Eight: Debussey and the Death of Description" immediately comes to mind here.* We capture moments of interest. We stay attentive, but we certainly don't analyze at the level we would were we to make a thorough, workable transcription. The same is true with transcribing speech.

I'm still terrified. After a few futile attempts at transciption/translation, my current strategy is to let the interview MP3s sit on my hard-drive until I'm far away from Brazil. I'll rely on those vague ideas captured in the discussion instead. Music I can deal with, but this transcription/translation is just a little too much for now.

* Elisabeth LeGuin, "One Bar in Eight: Debussey and the Death of Description," in Beyond Structural Listening: Post-Modern Modes of Hearing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 233-251.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ghosting Notes

I have spent much of the last two days transcribing and analyzing a song I’ve known for about half my life. (No, you don’t get to know what it is!) It is so satisfying to do this work. In contrast to the process of writing, and my self-imposed daily word counts, you’d think this kind of woodshedding would be frustrating. It really isn’t. The knowledge that transcription brings excites me, especially in this case where everything is finally coming together in front of my eyes.

My learning style has always combined visual, aural, and tactile knowledge, maybe that’s why this step is so rewarding. I was one of those students that needed to do the reading before lecture, listened closely in class, and take copious notes. For me, knowledge absorbed three times isn’t just knowledge that sticks, it is knowledge that comes alive. Of course, as soon as I condense these two days of work into the four sentences I wanted to add to my paper, I’ll forget about the excitement of this experience.

To transcribe a lot of the music I write about is often both a translation exercise and a political act. This is one reason why I don’t use a lot of transcription examples in my publications. Yet, I have yet to find reasons to directly engage with the politics of transcription, maybe because it is so useful to me in the writing process. In other words, maybe its a blind spot. This past summer I got to discuss my work in an interdisciplinary, multi-media workshop. Yes, putting musicological writing online, for example, can be exciting. Your readers can hear what you’re talking about, and you don’t have to impose your notation and your assumptions onto that music. But, even more intellectually exciting might be to engage with the difficulties of representing popular music in the multi-media formats that, on the surface, allow you “do it all.” I’m working on a project that I hope will let me do just that, and I hope that some other contributors have something to say about this.

Finally, I recommend reading Peter Winkler’s article “Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and Politics of Transcription,” found in the 1997 collection Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture. He talks about the process of transcription, and its value, and contrasts it to the product of transcription. Transcription, he argues, is a particularly intimate way to get to know a song, as a musician. The article also includes a transcription of Aretha Franklin’s version of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wrap-Up, and on to the Next

Well, that was a good start!

We're not exactly sure how to organize this whole "themes" idea for this blog, but it seems like a good moment to move along to something else. We've had contributions from Kariann about the idea of "bad music" and guilty pleasures, Phil on on the link between theory and our own lives, Rebecca on her love for Church music, MMR on her experience as a rock star and the role of the canon, Phil again on Britney Spears, Kariann again on sound system bikes, and even a take on the situation by Sammee over at her own blog. I'm not sure how to quite sum up the points. One thing I think I can safely say is that there is a fair amount of anxiety out there about revealing too much of yourself in academia. Given the tight job market, the difficulty of getting into grad school, and of course the small size and presumed collegiality of our field, it's entirely reasonable to worry that one's personal taste or beliefs might harm one's career--the whole thing is such a crap shot, who knows what might sink you. Blogging, as we all know, strikes at the heart of the relationship between an academic's private and public image.

So let's leave our anxious selves behind, and move onto something less personal, and a bit more work-oriented: transcription!

We'll lead off with a guest post that raises some juicy questions, and I believe Kariann has a post on the subject brewing as well. Do you have a story about transcription? Want to pontificate? Get in touch, or blog about it yourself. Make sure to link back here so that we know you have, and we'll link you up.

We're also open to suggestions on how to make this somewhat experimental format more interesting and useful, so feel free to leave a comment to this post if you have an idea. One thing I'd like to see is more short posts that don't feel obligated to make a big point. Lord knows that can be stressful to write. I'd rather see quantity over quality, myself.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sound-System Bikes and the Modernities of Hauling Music

When I first started my bicycle blog a few weeks ago, I thought it would be an excellent outlet for me to relay stories and observations of my car-less day-to-day life in Los Angeles. What I never expected, however, was how rapidly I would begin to make connections between my life as a musicologist and my life as a cyclist. And then I saw this photograph:

Yesterday, the nation’s “newspaper of record,” The New York Times, published a piece about bicycles in Queens equipped with sound systems. While I think it is wonderful that the Times is covering this alternative mode of blasting music into public spaces, I have to wonder why it has taken so long for this most esteemed newspaper to notice what has been apparent to me for a very long time: people will carry anything they can on a bicycle if the situation demands it, and they will even do it in ways that prevent efficient riding. From touring bicyclists who sleekly carry all their supplies for extended rides to homeless people who obsessively collect and stack their belongings on old bikes, the range of persons who improbably carry large quantities of material on a bicycle is huge and has been this way for a long time. In my area of LA, it is perfectly normal to see people riding to the laundry-mat with their bikes loaded with baskets. And I am describing a supposedly affluent area.

What bothers me about this sudden “discovery” of sound-system bikes is that there is nothing really new about it, whether you are describing the precarious stacking of equipment on a two or three wheeled self-propelled vehicle or the creative use of technologies to remake urban spaces. How many times have you seen someone riding by on a bike with a boom-box? Yes, it is interesting and even “strange” to see people improbably carry large amounts of cargo, but it isn’t a foreign concept to me. Go to any Critical Mass Ride, for example, and you are likely to hear music moving with the multitude of bicycles. Where is it coming from? Fully-loaded cargo-bikes.

But in our techno-savvy culture, people doing things on bikes is a signal of poverty and even development.* Or, in much more rough and inaccurate terms, bikes are orientalist while iPods, cars, and other narrow definitions of modernity are occidentalist.** From my perspective, modernities are apparent all throughout the world, especially in the ways that people use and experience music. Yes, you can see more large objects on bikes and scooters all throughout Rio de Janeiro. And when the city closes down roads on Sundays for beach-crowd use, you can sometimes hear music coming from self-propelled and disabled vehicles that coexist with pedestrians in car-free spaces. The same is true for carnival: the labor for distributing beer, ice, and other beverages throughout the multitude of dancing people does not fall on cars but rather the efforts of those people who work carnival by hauling their cargo on bikes and crates instead of partying to the music. In other places like “developing” and BRIC countries, cargo-carrying bicycles are even more prominent. In some places like the big cities in China, bike lanes get the same amount of space as those for cars. But other places that fall outside this apparent development/modernity binary also have many examples of such bicycles (i.e. the Netherlands, Portland OE, Seattle WA). It just doesn’t work as neatly as one would expect and yet it persists and is reinforced in our popular media.

Take for example the opening photograph of Time Magazine’s article on the iPhone as the Invention of the Year for 2007 (print version only). In this photograph you see a fully decked out self-propelled vehicle apparently doing the same things as a woman carrying an iPhone. Also notice how the racial and gendered messages of the person who uses “low” bike technology as opposed to “high” Apple technology is mixed: it’s a white man pushing the super-loaded bike and an asian woman who holds the iPhone. According to the development/modernity dichotomy, one would expect the opposit portrayal races of the persons in the photo. My friend and colleague billtron has already written about the political and cultural consequences of such messages on new technologies of the iPod (and it was he who first told me about the NYT article). He, along with many others, notes the role of increasingly mobile music in the changing formation of communities around the world. Clearly it isn’t entirely sweet and pretty nor ugly and dehumanizing. That would be too simple an answer. Superethnomusiblogger, wayne&wax, recently presented a stunning paper/presentation (on a Saturday morning SEM panel...) on the rise of global ghetto-tech in blogosphere representations of the global south, among other things. All of this points to a not-so-subtle fetishization of technology and poverty/"the ghetto" in recent uses of mobile music, fully-loaded bicycles included. (NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon does his part to reinforce this representation of ghetto-tech by emphasizing the racial difference of his interviewees in the above article.)

And I wonder, as gadget lust spreads throughout the world, what that means for those people who see no problem with strapping some speakers or a boom-box to their bicycles? Or better yet, what would it mean to the U.S.’s persistent posturing as a fully developed country if it were to consistently show signs of poverty through public displays of creative consumption of old technologies, like bicycles and analog stereo systems, mostly known in places of the global south? Such very large questions.

Which brings me to the larger theme of this blog. Fundamentally, every aspect and connection I make about music, modernities, and their connection to improbable uses of technology draws from a plurality of identities. I am a musicologist who specializes in Latin America with a serious affinity for sound culture studies and urban spaces. I also ride a bike. Sociologists and linguists sometimes call these modes of identities and idioms "codes"; in this instance, I am code-switching more than I normally do. Very rarely do I get to flex so many different critical muscles at the same time, but in such cases of recent portrayals of bicycles, technology, and "the ghetto," it is entirely necessary that I do so. In a recent invited music lecture at my home university, a professor in the audience likened finding one's theory/methodology to cooking from what's available in your refrigerator. I love that metaphor. My response today is shaped by so many aspects of who I consider myself to be in this very moment: it just so happens that I am currently engaged in an extended visit in Rio de Janeiro which undoubtedly influences my reactions. Everything counts and eventually contributes to how we shape ourselves as scholars, especially those of us engaged in inter-disciplinary musicology.

*Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

**Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategis for Entering and Leaving Modernity, translated by Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. Lopez (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1995); Néstor García Canclini, Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts, translated and with an introduction by George Yúdice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm A Humbug

Like everybody else, nine times out of ten, when people ask me what I study, the response to "musicology" is "what's THAT?" I have a pat answer I largely cribbed from Grove ("Musicology is the study not only of music, but of musicians, composers, and audiences living in certain places, at certain times, and within certain social constructs"), which usually has to be followed by a semi-apologetic "'s like history and sociology, sort of, but about music," and then sometimes even further by, ", WHY is Beethoven so popular?" After coping with questions about what instruments I play, I tend to launch into murky, confusing rhapsodies on "gender theory." These conversations usually go poorly, and I am left drinking alone at parties after alienating the friendly querier and everyone within earshot. Even in my own family, confusion reigns. For years, my grandmother has been asking why I need so much school "just to teach piano lessons to little children."

I find that I am situated somewhat differently within musicology, in terms of my own angsty hang-ups, than other people who have posted on this blog. I come to musicology profoundly humbled, often abject, constantly aware of my bewildering shortcomings in studying the classical music which I have never actually known that much about. My musical background is more along the lines of the "punk-ass kid": I spent nearly ten years of my life playing in various rock, pop, and pretentious "conceptual electro art/prog" bands and touring somewhat internationally in a succession of dirty, breaking-down vehicles.

I have never had a problem with the music I liked. The first band I ever got into was They Might Be Giants, in 7th grade. I think when TMBG is your first love, you sort of transcend shame. It never occurred to me to think it was "funny" when I used words like "powerful" and "mind-blowing" to describe Justin Timberlake's album, or Beyoncé's reggaeton juggernaut "Check on It." Popular music is my people, and if I am ever in the terrifying position of teaching an opera class, you can be sure that "Tommy" will be on the syllabus.

So, I have this same shame about writing academically about pop music, but it's because I feel like in order to do so, I must first know all about old serious music. It seems like everybody else knows so much about classical music that they feel stupid talking about popular music--almost like they feel less authorized, or like they are coming from TOO educated a place to unproblematically stick Bob Marley next to Mahler in their paper-writing chronology. But when I imagine magically having all this knowledge about harmonic analysis and Beethoven and whatever else, I imagine it setting me FREE. I feel that if I was more comfortable talking about old music, it would automatically privilege my life-experience knowledge about popular music more. And I think that's weird. I think it's weird that you can grow up devaluing your own musical knowledge even when no one has ever explicitly told you to--and even when, at UCLA, most of your professors go out of their way to give props to popular music and to your wrathful papers about Kenny G and how people hate women. Do the fancies who grew up listening to Tchaikovsky feel guilty because they don't know enough about Joni Mitchell? Maybe, I guess. But my arch nemesis Gene Weingarten would certainly never compose a sorrowing screed about the uneducated materialists who dared to WALK PAST Mitchell playing in a subway station, the way he did for Joshua Bell. To quote Molly Shannon: "DON'T get me STARTED."

I love all "my" music indiscriminately and unironically, whether it's Harold en Italie or Mariah Carey. But love doesn't equal intellectual authorization. Why do I feel like I can't write authoritatively about Mariah Carey (not to mention Harold en Italie) without first developing a categorical knowledge of 19th century German music? One could argue that the two are related in only the most abstract way ("music made by humans"), and yet the impression persists. And no matter how much I read about the towering fallacy perpetuated on Time Itself by German Idealism and the nationalistic upholding of German absolute music as political propaganda, I still get sweaty and think, "oh jeez, I hope nobody finds out I don't really understand what a Neapolitan chord is."

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Popular" Music

Over at Beyond Academia, Sammee has a post up in response to our theme of "the music we study/the music we love." Check it out!

Sammee brings up the spectre of Britney Spears, rightfully pointing out that popular music studies often neglects popular music that is, you know, popular. I myself always complain about the scholarly neglect of pop singers like Patti Page. One statistic I've seen says that Patti's "Tennessee Waltz," released in 1949, was the best-selling single by a solo female artist until Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" came along in 1992. And yet, Patti is always just a footnote in pop music textbooks, or even worse, is used as an example of how boring music was before rock and roll came along.

Britney Spears is special though. I'm a huge fun myself, have been since a college roommate introduced me to her. I was a bit old to have been on the "Hit Me Baby One More Time" bandwagon; for me the song that sold me was "I'm a Slave 4 U." I bought Britney the day it came out, and likewise saw Crossroads on opening day and now force my friends to watch it on DVD. I try hard to not let my love of Britney become some sort of hipster ironic thing. Luckily I'm not very hip, but it can be hard some time, especially with the recent drek she's been releasing. I also try not to turn her into a campy diva, because I find that soooo old, but again, when she goes and performs like she did at the MTV awards, it's hard not to imagine her backstage in a sequined pantsuit downing bourbon and barbiturates. No, I want my love of Britney to be pure. Not hip, not campy, not guilty, but pure and unashamed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Single-Serving Public Relations

Here's a fly-by-night post from the road:

I love that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton explains the concept of a single-serving friend in reference to travelling on airplanes. From the perspective of his character (Bob, is it?), every experience on airplanes comes in single-servings including one's social relationships. And he's right. I'm currently stuck in an airport Santiago, Chile on a (::gasp::) 7-hour layover (don't ask) on my way to Rio de Janeiro and I've just finished with 10 hours of non-stop single-serving friendship-building that I liken more to public relations.

This friend was no less than an eager undergraduate off to South America for his first extended stay. He only spoke English (which was a little disappointing since I couldn't practice my Spanish or Portuguese) so free-flowing conversation was inevitable. But the moment when I was forced to pause was when he asked me what exactly it is that I do. For this student, nothing I said made any sense and I found myself faced with a completely different side of the doing-what-you-love / guilty-pleasures discussion that we've been having over here. That is, are we in trouble if we can't explain the merits of what we do to a college-educated citizen?

Giving the simple, "I study music" answer simply does not suffice for a 10-hour plane ride of mostly undivided attention. Nor does a mini-lecture rapidly culled from all of my first-day experiences in front of a room full of undergraduates. The big difference in this situation is that this single-serving audience doesn't start the conversation expecting to hear about musicology. Even more to the point, this person doesn't necessarily care about the humanities or social science perspective (or my feelings, for that matter). For this moment of single-serving public relations, I found myself without the crutches of GE requirements that normally force otherwise passive consumers of culture to listen and participate.

So what do we do when we basically have to defend our field(s) of study to people with very little patience for the academy, especially those non-applied "ologies" that have a very difficult time seeming relevant? Oh, you know you have faced this same quandary. This debate has been raging for years. Most of the time I ignore the starkness of this reality; I continue to study what I love without guilt and pick my methodologies with care all in the pursuit of doing good work and contributing to the academic conversation. I also teach with enthusiasm and hope that I engage as many students as possible. I try my best to forget those uncomfortable conversations with family or old friends who really don't understand how studying what I love could be a career. But these discussions are very much about about public relations and sometimes I wonder if we, as a group, couldn't be doing a better job at it. For example, maybe we should insist that those conversation openers not end with "I study music," but rather begin there. Such brief explanations rarely help.

I don't know. I am trying to not to read too much into one of many similar conversations I've had in the last few months (make that years). Maybe I'm just tired from not sleeping on a long, bumpy flight. Maybe I will take over that couch on the other side of the lounge...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Not So Guilty Pleasures

This post brought to you by Rebecca M. over at Musically Miscellaneous Mayhem.

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.

-Rebecca M.

*Author's note: These names are meant to be generic. I apologize if they represent real people, pieces and places.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Our Theories, Ourselves

Kariann has just discussed the tension a lot of musicologists feel between the music they study and the music they love. The tension is of course not actually about studying versus loving, I think, but about the different kinds of love we can have for music. Some music I study feels "important" in an aural hygiene sort of way, other music I study makes an excellent soundtrack for a roadtrip. (Don't try to combine the two. My partner still enjoys telling people the story of when, at about 1:00 am at the end of a long day's drive to get up to a vacation in the Adirondacks, I started playing Robert Ashley's She Was a Visitor. Somehow, the combination of twisty mountain roads and a chorus of whooshing vocables was not soothing to her.)

I think the tension between studying/loving is something that is dissipating somewhat from our discipline. This is not just that we are now allowed to study popular music, which for many was less a change in mindset and more a "baby boomer gets tenure and starts to work on the Beatles" sort of thing. But with all music, I sense that it is okay to be passionate in a way that I'm not sure it always has been. It's okay to give papers that show enthusiasm, and that actually try to communicate something. And giving a good, communicative conference papers means several things:

1) The scholar cares.
2) The scholar realizes that his or her own performance instrumentally affects the material--the medium is a big part of the message.
3) The scholar therefore has to embody the scholarly material in a way that a simple dry reading will not require. Material and person become a little closer. Do a little dance. Make a little love.

(Incidentally, I hope you all read Tenured Radical's guide to giving good paper.)

But I'm getting off track here. What I actually wanted to talk about was another part of the studying/loving tension, methodology. Here's the dark secret of scholarship: we don't choose our scholarly approach because we think it is the best way. We choose it because it feels good.

Example: a Schenkerian can justify for hours about why Schenker is the best way to analyze music, but when it comes down to it, they chose Schenkerian analysis because they enjoy doing it. (Poor souls.) They like the answers it gives, they like the questions it asks. And I would argue that deep down, the same holds true for all of us. Choosing a theoretical framework is an aesthetic decision. As such, it is not arbitrary, but is a mediation of our own history, our politics, our priorities, our psychology, perhaps even our biology. What any theoretical framework is most certainly not is right or wrong.

Another example: myself. There is of course a lot of theory out there that I can use fairly confidently. There is the stuff I have studied (see above, Schenker), the stuff I force myself to use because it is historically appropriate--I've read a lot of fifties social theory, for instance, which I find decidedly unsexy. But if there is theory I study, there is also theory I proudly love. For me it is nineties queer theory. Those heady days of my youth when it felt like Eve Sedgwick and Judy Butler had single-handedly figured out the meaning of the world. Michael Warner, David Halperin, José Muñoz, Leo Bersani, Lisa Duggan....yum. I've been through enough grad school to be able to say in more intellectual terms why this theoretical repertoire was great, and even to be fairly critical of a lot of it. But I also find it liberating to admit that the real reason I like it, and use it, is that I find it sexy.

Now, this sexiness is an aesthetic reaction, and I know where it comes from. It has to do with the early days of my academic training, with some political things I've been involved in. But most of all...well, you know, that's an awfully personal question!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Music We Study and The New Consensus?

It looks like I'm not the only one contemplating how we choose our objects of study. Over at amusicology, Drew similarly takes Walser's book review as a jumping off point to comment on the state of our field. I could say a lot more, but I have a feeling that musicology blogs don't know we exist over here.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Music We Enjoy and Music We Study

In a recent review of an essay collection entitled Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, Robert Walser questions the very idea of the book's premise, citing Dave Hickey and Christopher Small and their approach to contextualizing and taking seriously people's genuine pleasures that other critics flatly dismiss.* Guilty pleasures in popular culture are inherently about class and privilege. During my years as a graduate student there have been flare-ups and heated debates about this topic –– among my fellow grad students, in the classroom when I lead discussions, and in much more public forums like seminars and conference panels. It's an intense topic and some people take offense at the very idea of ironic cultural appreciation (i.e. "oh I love Fergie, but only ironically") and guilty pleasures. As a case in point, just a few days ago I noticed that two of my facebook friends joined a group called "Against the concept of guilty pleasures." Thus, the debate rages on. But it brings me to a larger theme in the academic study of music: for many music scholars (by no means all of us), there is the music we passionately enjoy, and then there is the music we study (which, no doubt, has its own passions).

I know of a few music scholars who study pleasures that they consider guilty and a few others who refuse to study the music they love. Some keep these divisions separated in their lives by period (i.e. an 19th century music scholar who is passionate about EMO, the medievalist who is obsessed with Beck), while others have their loves and objects of study in much closer temporal and geographic proximity (i.e. the Brazilianist with a strong interest in contemporary art music, the North African music scholar with a love for jazz, the rock music scholar with a secret passion for Film Music). I even know one ethnomusicologist who began his dissertation research on a particular genre simply because he so passionately hated the music that he wanted to understand its popularity. He's upfront about this, and sometimes I wish others of us would be clear about our motivations in our work. Surely we all make our choices for our subjects of study for a variety of reasons, but I want to challenge this separtion a little bit more.

Just the other night, I ran into some ethnomusicologists at a jazz/fusion show. An old friend of mine was playing with his band and I decided to see them again after numerous prodding emails and phone calls. The show was great as usual, but seeing my colleagues was, well, a little awkward. In one sense, it forced me to read the concert ethnographically and even hindered the experience for what it was. In another sense, none of us was there because we study this music. I know that one of my colleagues was there because he, too, is friends with a member of the band, while the other one simply told me, "yeah, these guys are great! More people should know about them!" Jazz/fusion shows tend to draw a certain demographic, and I couldn't stop paying attention to the fact that as a woman, I was in the minority. And I love this music, but I am extremely uncomfortable studying it. Before I decided to specialize in Brazilian music, I thought I was going to work on the intersections of jazz and electronic dance music. (Ask me some time about my MA exams or my MA thesis...) I changed specializations for many reasons, but among them was that I did not feel comfortable analyzing the musical cultures of my closest childhood friends.

Similarly, I discovered during my second year at my MA program that I am incapable of studying music for which I have intense emotions, especially the music I connect with my adolescence. When I decided that musicology was for me, I knew that I would eventually run into this problem – I just never predicted the multitude of ways that it would present itself in my life and in academia. In fact, during my first years as an undergraduate learning about musicology, my mentor told me that for many people, "popular music is either too important for intellectual discussion, or not important enough." Have I fallen prey to the very values that make it so difficult for popular music scholarship to attain the same prestige as, say, the canon?

But these choices and personal observations are my own; they do not apply to everyone. (For example, I know of plenty of excellent scholars who study what they love, regardless, or even because of, that personal attachment.) I have a feeling that many of the essays that caused Robert Walser to react so strongly to Bad Music have to do with scholars attempting to intellectually reconcile the music that causes them mixed emotions and abject reactions with the charge of being popular music scholars. Theoretically, we should take one-hit wonders as seriously as we take Louis Armstrong or jazz/fusion bands, and we should surely be able to study the music that is most dear to us. I guess the question for many of us is whether or not we want to go down that particular rabbit hole of personal taste verses intellectual duty. I'm still unsure myself.

* Robert Walser, Review of Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, edited by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derko, New York: Routledge, 2004, Journal of the Society for American Music 1 (2007): 511-516.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Musicology/Matters is a new music blog coordinated by Kariann Goldschmitt and Philip Gentry. The two of us are both doctoral students in musicology at UCLA. Kariann is writing a dissertation on the reception and representation of Brazilian music in the United States, while I'm writing on American music during McCarthyism. Both of us have individual blogs elsewhere--here and here--but we also wanted to create a forum where we could have more focused discussions about musicology, and also provide a space for some of our non-blogging friends and colleagues to contribute occasional entries. To that end, our idea is that we will have occasional themes about which we will both contribute posts, and invite others to contribute as well. Do you have an idea for a theme, or wish to write a post? Let us know!