Monday, July 17, 2017

How Now, Musicology Now?

The American Musicological Society is a venerable organization, the professional body gathering in professors and students of musicology in the US and Canada. When I was a musicology graduate student I was a member and attended several of their conferences. The AMS has an official blog called Musicology Now and it might be interesting to have a look. Thanks to commentator Will for reminding me of it.

A blog post, that neither is likely to advance one's career, nor offer payment, is a fairly low incentive activity, but still I am shocked at how few posts there are:

Just for comparison, here is my blog archive for the same years:

According to the website for the AMS, they have some 3.500 individual members, nearly all of whom seem to see no particular reason to contribute a post to the blog, it seems!

In February last year I put up a post discussing a debate that was raging on the Musicology Now site. Go have a look. What are they up to these days? The top post right now is a digest of a dissertation on Cuban dance culture. Seems quite topical and ties into the Obama initiative to foster ties with Cuba. Here is how the writer describes her project:
What does a musicologist gain by studying popular dance culture? One might ask conversely what the discipline of musicology has to offer to the study of popular dance cultures. Certainly my desire to treat both the aesthetic elements and the evolving socio-economic contexts of a popular music-dance culture with seriousness and depth has forced me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Yet as a musician and musicologist, the music – its sounds and structures, their logics and meanings – is the touchstone from which I began and to which I repeatedly return. Even the “simplest” folk music has layers of meaning to unpack, once we pay close attention to its basic sonic elements - rhythm, timbre, form, and pitch, for example - and consider the ways in which these produce meaning within their “home” context. In the case of popular dance cultures, scholars of African, Cuban, and even North American dance genres have shown that the intimate relationship between music and dance requires a detailed examination of the dance within the context of a rigorous musical analysis.
I would be curious to see a sample of this rigorous analysis, but I guess that would be too much to expect from a "digest." Here is the last paragraph, summing up the post:
In many ways, change and uncertainty are more palpable than ever at this writing, both on the island and off. Yet official postures and policies aside, musicians and dancers in Havana, New York, and elsewhere yearn to reenact the cultural connections that keep Cuban dance culture alive, and continue to do so through new projects and partnerships. Forms like timba and casino exist precisely because of those resistant acts. They are proof of and inspiration for further acts of mingling and sharing, reminding us of our humanity, resilience, and need for communal moments of pleasure and release. Understanding these deep-rooted connections – between musical sound, embodied listener, and socio-economic space – is the goal of my project and the work of today’s musicologist. 

The next post is titled "Earth Music" and consists of musings about the, I guess, ontological status of the golden record that was sent out to the universe on both the Voyager deep space probes. What do the authors have to share with us?
Whether this Earth Music constitutes a flattening of musical features or a liberation is a matter of perspective. Either way, thinking through the Golden Record challenges us to refashion what we, as musicologists, do. Ultimately, the chief point of this interstellar exploration is firmly focused on the question of communication, starting with our communication here on Planet Earth. This musical anniversary affords us a great opportunity to raise some important questions about the reach of musicology. It asks us to consider our work in its capacity to communicate across the barriers of languages, cultures—indeed across whole worlds and planets—and to examine the very basis and purpose of our work. If we set the most ambitious goals, communicating across species, across exoplanetary systems, and renegotiate the very foundational terms with which we operate, perhaps the rest of our work will seem less daunting as a consequence. Space, it turns out, really is the final frontier.
The next post praises film composer Rupert Gregson-Williams soundtrack to the recent Wonder Woman movie:
Gregson-Williams presents discernible musical themes without patterning his score on a Wagnerian model, and the soundtrack evenly balances music with sound effects during battle scenes, an unusual mixing decision since the development of Dolby surround sound in the 1980s. Critics and viewers have applauded the film’s representation of women both on- and off-screen. Gregson-Williams’s soundtrack also reflects Diana’s Amazonian warrior values and provides a model for future superhero scores. More memorable thematic cues that are balanced with sound effects in action-packed scenes should be applied to break the trope of forgettable superhero soundtracks. 
The next post is also on the film and discusses the nature of evil in Wonder Woman:
This “love,” or what Arendt would call an “understanding heart” differentiates Wonder Woman from Batman and Superman. Superman protects humanity from outside threats, and Batman roots out the bad apples. Only Wonder Woman grapples with the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving. Having faced that question, she insists on living in (and loving) the world as it is, enabling her to see the good in everyone, even Batman’s bad apples. Her “understanding heart” allows her to forge that new beginning that Arendt so prized. 
If we take this official blog of the AMS to be a valid index of what they are up to these days, then the news is dire. It seems that the Gramscian march through the institutions has triumphed! Why do I say this? Ironically, the new musicology is all about establishing the social context of music, but the first post, with its whitewashing of the real nature of the Cuban dictatorship, tries to conceal entirely the social context. The second post has as its fundamental assumption the erasing of all boundaries, national and other, and then proceeds to a really silly exercise in navel-gazing. The third and fourth posts are really exercises in feminism. My point is, whatever your position on these issues and questions, it is pretty much undeniable that they are all ones that embody the politics of the left. Also, only half of the posts actually deal with music as such.

But let me end on a much more cheerful note. JAMS, the Journal of the American Musicological Society offers quite a different picture of what musicologists are up to these days as a glance at the articles in the current issue (follow the link) will reveal. Lots of serious papers on actual music!

As one of the papers is about Boris Godunov, the opera by Musorgsky, let's have a little of that for our envoi.


Anonymous said...

Much of your criticism of modern trends is on point, but you lost me with your snarky takedown of the "Cuban music" digest. I read it twice and I see nothing wrong with it. She seems to be following in the footsteps of Taruskin, whose greatness lies in the fact that he is not a (mere) musicologist but a historian of music. What makes you assume she won't be providing a "rigorous musical analysis" or she won't be factoring in the Castro dictatorship in her discussion? These are cheap shots. Come on, Bryan, you're better than that.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm only slightly better than that!

How she lost me was with the unrelieved abstractions that so often, as in the last paragraph, drifted into happythoughts.

But thanks for the pushback, I do appreciate them.

Jives said...

I used to visit Musicology Now quite often, especially during/after that dust-up with the Italian professor who was teaching opera in prison, and wrote a post about it with a few PC missteps. That was fun! Then there was a shake up in personnel who were handling the blog, and it sort of down-shifted into the current pop-culture naval gazing, where it seems to be stuck. And yes, to my mind, the posts are very insubstantial now. All throat-clearing and virtue signaling, full of inclusive ideas which sound very high-minded, but don't add up to much.

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, your recent articles on Stravinsky and the influence of his teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, are offensive to me because I have never been a member of the Russian aristocracy. How alienating to read about such privileged men who speak a different language than do I, who enjoyed wealth I'll never know and who had skills and knowledge I will never have! Perhaps you could be more sensitive and less biased if only you could cite examples of American electricians (who I can identify with) as performers of this aristocratic Czarist music that obviously symbolizes (and whitewashes) everything exploitative and privileged and anti-democratic in the evil people who made such beautiful music while my ancestors were poor and illiterate!

If you think I'm being ridiculous, then return to the Musicology Now website and, after reading the 4-part series on the "Wonder Woman" movie soundtrack, and after reading 4-part series analyzing the soundtrack to the "Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2" movie, all of which came after the deep immersion in popular music that informed the article on the history of music in Pepsi Cola commercials....after reading all this, PLUS the latest article published 2 days ago

that encourages music history teachers to select their example performances and artists based on their gender and their so-called don't you see how you champion not just racism and sexism but also czarism and monarchy when you write so praisingly about Russian aristocratic music without finding a way to include women and people of color and American electricians? It is OUTRAGEOUS! When will you show respect for ALL of us and stop focusing on elite music when there is so much music-of-the-people that you blatantly ignore!

Bryan Townsend said...

I abase myself! Please forgive me and give me directions to the nearest re-education camp so I can have all my badthoughts scrubbed away!

Will, thanks for alerting me to that last Musicology Now article. Why it is almost as if Chairman Mao were put in charge of the curriculum.

Unknown said...

Bryan - As one of the editors of Musicology Now, let me thank you for your attention to our blog. We could definitely publish more content, but our situation is slightly different than that of a single-authored blog. The editors don't publish their own material, and, as you note, publishing a piece in Musicology Now does not advance one's career like peer-reviewed publication. We're always looking for more material, but since no one really "owns" this blog, we do have a problem getting people to put stuff out there for the no-so-tender consideration of the internet at large.

I'm shamelessly linking to this attack on the blog in my FB feed, on our page, etc. in order to rouse the collective pride of the Society, and perhaps drum up more submissions. I'm not sure the result will be to your intellectual taste (chacun, etc.), but we can all agree that it would be great to have more material to the AMS blog.

Thanks for your help. :)

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Robert. Now I know why I suddenly have all this traffic coming from Facebook. Looking at your publications, I have the urge to read your book on minimal music, a particular interest of mine. I didn't really want to stir up a controversy, not at first. But a few days later another of my commentators alerted me to a new post, the one on Six Ways to Address Racial and Gender Diversity... and that one really got my dander up! Here is the resulting post:

My blog is pretty well-trafficked and we have had a few debates over the years. So I welcome any comments from your members. Should prove interesting.