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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An important question, but I think Fish is way off the mark. Just because something doesn't have an immediate effect doesn't mean it has none. I've written a few thoughts on this in an article called "What Good Is Musicology?" I'd be interested in your thoughts.