Friday, January 11, 2008

Useful Musicology

Today I walked into my regular coffee shop and to my surprise they were blasting Viennese classical music instead of their usual fair of indie rock and downtempo electronic dance music. When I enthusiastically identified the composer for the second time in a row (first Haydn, then Mozart), the gentleman behind the counter said, "well, isn't that what you are paid for?" Baristas like bartenders sometimes exude so much wisdom. Needle-drop tests aren't necessarily part of our job description (although that skill certainly helped me win my first job offer out of college), but it is what gets us the big money in copyright cases. For many outsiders, our ability to identify music determines our minimum value.

But I do have a larger point. Many of you have probably read Stanley Fish's latest column about the "value" of the humanities. (If not, go read it now.) As one of the most public intellectuals in the humanities, he says many things that make me feel validated about my existence. Or maybe not. There are many of us in the humanities and cultural studies who take great pains to argue for the relevance and utility of our field of study. I myself was once confronted with that very question on a first date. (At the time I admired that boldness of the question.)

But in those late nights when I consider the worst-case-scenario, or when I accept money-making musicology gigs outside of academia, I wonder about the utility of my field of study. What will I do if I can't fulfill my ambition to be a real live professional musicologist, not just someone who plays one on TV or the blogosphere? (I'm not sure that dead-pan humor works on blogs, but I try.) Sure, this gloomy topic might have something to do with some rather looming fellowship deadlines where I have the unpleasant task of arguing for the relevance of my dissertation topic. Or perhaps my dreary emotional state is just a symptom of Winter quarter at my institution. (One professor in my department refers to the zeitgeist of Winter and Spring quarters as the "22-week march to the summer.") We spend a lot of time arguing for relevance, and Fish rightly argues that this pursuit is misguided. Humanistic studies rarely produce concrete results.

Yet, some people automatically assume that such utility is just the case. Just a month ago, there was a moment when I was conducting field interviews when someone asked, "What can you as a musicologist do to help? What can your research results do for me?" I improvised an answer, of course, but the question still dogs me. At its root lies a question of ethics that is far more familiar to ethnomusicologists than historical musicologists. (Again, my in-between status is giving me unexpected problems.) Aside from doing our research subject "justice" when contributing to the academic discussion, does our particular brand of work afford us the opportunity to make a meaningful difference? I'm not talking about our immediate fields here (where such changes are assumed as part of intellectual discourse), but the larger "public sphere." Not all hope is lost, of course. Phil has been posting about musicologists in the public eye. And this summer the UC Humanities Research Institute is sponsoring a summer seminar to begin addressing that intersection of humanities, policy, and industry. I certainly hope these events and the ongoing popularity of other events like the Experience Music Project indicate a new possibilities for us to make a difference. But while music scholars are certainly engaging with the "public sphere" in new ways, I still feel ill-equipped to provide answers about the immediate utility and exigency of my research. This is unfortunately what needle-drops, copyright cases, and that exchange in my interview seem to be requesting. Maybe I should follow Stanley Fish's logic and just bask in my own uncertainty. It is a good place to start.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A New Year

So here it is after the new year. Kariann's back from Brazil, I am now a married man, and yet, we are still finding it hard to find time to blog. So, we're going to be pretty laidback around here, just a post or two when we feel like it.

Meanwhile, what was up with Alex Ross's column in this week's New Yorker? I like Alex's writing a lot, and plan to assign The Rest is Noise first chance I get. In fact, I just wrote on spec a syllabus for a class on modernist music, and I cheerfully included two chapters, "Death Fugue" and "Music for the People." But this column first of all makes no sense: it begins with the nonsensical assertion the sexism has nothing to do with the absence of female conductors, gives a quick positive review of Marin Alsop's work with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and then suddenly veers into discussing how boring the New York Philharmonic can be. Bizarre.

The weird "classical music isn't sexist, it just doesn't like novelty" thing gives me special pause though. It's old history at this point, but back in 1994 Alex wrote an extremely dismissive review of Feminine Endings and other New Musicology classics. He had plenty of valid points, but overall it was a pretty annoying piece: let me, Alex Ross, show you, Susan McClary, how to historicize sexuality! And there is a weird undercurrent of anxiety that somehow new musicology will destroy the institution of classical music--he literally expresses unease that Feminine Endings is read by undergraduates!

That was fourteen years ago, back before he was more comfortably ensconced at The New Yorker. Knowing his current work, I was surprised to read this old stuff. Anybody know if he ever readdressed Feminine Endings?