Monday, July 27, 2015

Performing Musicology

by Ellen T. Harris

There have been many calls recently to teach by doing, to show the research process rather than merely recite results. It is difficult to open a copy of The Chronicle without finding at least one article along these lines. Take, for example, “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?” by Peter N. Miller (The Chronicle Review, 3 April 2015). In describing design thinking, Miller offers a series of  “easy-to-grasp principles,” such as “Show Don’t Tell,” “Embrace Experimentation,” and “Bias Toward Action.” Although Miller’s article pertains to a graduate program in the School of Engineering at Stanford, it also resonates with musicology. Given that music is a performing art, the idea of “performing musicology” doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

I did a Google search to see if this phrase is in common use and found only two significant examples: a Study Day in 2011 co-sponsored by the Royal Musical Association, City University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on the “fusion of musicology and performance,” along with many references to performing the song “Musicology” by Prince! There is also the book Performing Ethnomusicology, edited by Ted Solis, which focuses on teaching world music performing ensembles. All of these instances of “performing musicology” emphasize some aspect of music performance. In this essay, I would like to repurpose the phrase from the sole purview of music performance and redefine “performing musicology” as performing the processes of musicological research.

Of course, as musicologists, we have a natural advantage in terms of “showing” rather than “telling,” since we study a performing art. Rather than merely explaining the structure of a deceptive cadence or chromatic deflection, for example, we play examples to give the harmonic motion its aural manifestation. But we can go further. In a class on the history of the art song or Romantic music, we can take Schubert’s “Ständchen” and not only demonstrate how Schubert slides chromatically from a four-bar dominant pedal in D Minor to an F-sharp 6/5 chord, but also give alternatives: what does the passage sound like if it moves to the tonic (triumphalism on the part of the lover!) or directly to the submediant (too hesitant?)? Deconstructing and re-engineering familiar music can give the beginning listener a you-are-there sense of compositional decisions in light of an historical toolbox of stylistic possibilities.

Given the necessity of transmitting a heavy load of information, however, or a large repertory of music, music assignments can quickly turn into memorization exercises that drain all sense of discovery out of the process. My revelatory moment came when I introduced my students in an Early Music class to a musicological text that, in contrast to more traditional textbooks, openly engaged with gaps and dissent within our knowledge base.The students’ reaction stunned me: why, they asked, weren’t such readings regularly made the basis of music courses; in fact, they previously had thought that musicology was “done.” Think about that—musicology as done, finished, over, nothing more to learn. It had never occurred to me that by teaching the “history” of music (when this happened, when that composer lived, how this piece is organized, what that composition means—all integral to a strong foundation in musicology) we risk imparting an absence of exploration and discovery in the research that we love.

In the Schubert example, which explores compositional options within a specific historical period, the idea of performing musicology, or opening up the compositional process, seems natural enough, but what of other activities a musicologist undertakes? The range of topics and research methods in our field is very broad. The books supported by the AMS that have been published so far in 2015 provide a glimpse: Beethoven, Schumann,and Wagner; the castrato; the late medieval motet; music during the Cold War; tuk music in Barbados; Johanna Beyer; and French pop music. How might such historical research be “performed”? In a thoughtful article by Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, “Habits of Mind” (The American Scholar, Winter 2015), the authors describe the currently-popular narrative that defines research in the humanities as narrowly focused and,compared to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math), “useless.” Then they dismiss this continuing discussion about the humanities, arguing that “generalizations . . . do violence to the facts on the ground,” and they choose to “talk about one discipline instead”—history, a field “born in research.” They emphasize the importance of going into the archives to teach. Although they rightly point out many places where this is already happening, they believe more of this kind of teaching is needed.

Why? “Partly because it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do.” In other words, just as one can move beyond being a passive listener by understanding something about the kinds of choices Schubert faced, one also can engage with the work of a scholar by following the research path to the results and seeing how information is gleaned and decisions made.

I can’t think of any aspect of musicology that couldn’t be made intrinsically interesting to students or a wider public through the “performance” of its process. Cultural studies (context), meaning and interpretation (semiotics), connoisseurship (analysis and aesthetics) seem obvious choices for this kind of exploration. But what about, say, rastrology? I actually have seen audiences intrigued to learn how music paper was prepared for and by composers, how and what information is embedded in the layout of the paper, and what different kinds of rastrals look like. (For some, an immediate and nostalgic connection can be made to the old chalk rastrals used in many elementary schools years ago—when music was a regular part of the curriculum.) Rastrology, like source studies more broadly and archival research, represents a form of musicological-historical detective work. Far from being esoteric and difficult, it resonates with great fiction by Umberto Eco and Charles Dickens. In The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, the resolution hinges on disentangling falsified and original documentary evidence (birth certificate, marriage contract, confinement papers). Some sense of this narrative excitement belongs in the research stories we tell.

The repeated calls for showing rather than telling pertain as much or more to musicology as any field. Many of you already do this in the classroom and are undoubtedly ahead of me. Dealing with difficult suppositions and challenging music almost demands it. Moreover, as we work on “performing musicology” in front of our students, we also lay the groundwork for an enhanced public musicology that will demonstrate the discovery process and excitement of what we do to a wider audience. Musicology isn’t obscure, esoteric, or “done,” and we have an obligation to our field and society at large to find ways of making that clear.

Ellen T. Harris is president of the American Musicological Society. This President's Message appears in the August issue of the AMS Newsletter.

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