Spring is in the air in Southern California! Well, to be fair, this isn’t usual: it always smells like flowers in Los Angeles (when it doesn’t smell like poisonous smog or wildfire smoke), but recent much needed rain has definitely made the city seem more verdant. My students are sunken-eyed and groggy from midterms, but spring break is just around the corner. What better time to take stock of how a new course is going?
This coming weekend the American Studies Association descends on Washington, D.C. for the annual conference. The theme this year is “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” and with thirteen concurrent sessions it promises to be a busy weekend. The ASA is not exactly a bastion of early Americanist work these days, but many of the overriding themes in current scholarship have their roots in early American history. Investigating the ramifications of colonialism and colonialist attitudes? check. Wrestling with (the legacy of) slavery? check. Questioning the role of gender in society? check.
For ten years, the Early American Matters Caucus has been sponsoring panels, and thanks to scrupulous program combing by Dennis Moore and the Working Committee, we can provide a guide to early (meaning, pre-1900) events at the conference.
It is well known that Lowell Mason (1792-1872) was a major figure in 19th-century American music education. He pioneered the first public school music curriculum in Boston in the 1830s, and thanks, in part, to his efforts music was a integral part of public education for the next 150+ years. If you studied music in grade school, you can thank (or blame) Mason. My own career as an educator and a musician is indebted to Mason’s innovations. With the fall semester about to begin, I find myself wondering about the intellectual, pedagogical, and personal lineages between teachers and students. What can I learn from Lowell Mason’s “family tree” of teachers? Can tracing our own lineages help us understand what kind of teachers we are? Continue reading
The Watkinson Library at Trinity College has an impressive collection of manuscript music from the late eighteenth century. Thanks to a grant from the Bibliographical Society of America, I spent a few weeks in June on a research road trip in New England, and Trinity was my first stop. Although I was focusing on musical commonplace books and copybooks, at the suggestion of librarian Sally Dickinson I also worked with their collection of annotated hymnals. It was while perusing these volumes that I came across something I hadn’t seen before: a hymnal in which every reference to Britain had been crossed out and replaced with the word “America” or related terms (New England, Western States, United States, etc.) As the assiduous penman noted at the bottom of one page, the entire volume had been “translated to America.”
Recently I’ve been taken by the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a French Baroque composer and Enlightenment-era music theorist. Rameau was a divisive figure in his day because he broke from the supremely elegant and nuanced style that had made the court of Louis XIV the center of late-17th-century musical life in Europe. This excerpt from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 opera Atys gives a sense of the sensitivity and sophistication of 17th-c. French music. Compared to Lully, Rameau’s music was daring and experimental. He turned the orchestra into a powerful beast and wrote music that more dense, more harmonically adventuresome, and more aggressive. He was Frank Sinatra to Lully’s Bing Crosby, the Rolling Stones to Herman’s Hermits, N.W.A. to De La Soul; etc. (making analogies is curiously addictive). Continue reading
In a week I’ll be heading to Little Rock for the Society of American Music Conference, where I’ll be chairing and presenting at a session on music in the Atlantic world. My paper is titled “Strategizing Atlantic Musicology” and in it I’m discussing some of the benefits and drawbacks for incorporating ideas from Atlantic studies into musicology. (I’m also hoping to claim the Pithiest Title Prize). I thought I’d try out a few of my ideas and concerns here, and hopefully tap the collective wisdom of the Junto community.
To give a little background: I’ve been thinking about Atlantic studies and music for a while–I wrote a dissertation about how transatlantic music shaped the identities of early American communities, and wrote a musicology article that uses concepts from Atlantic history to interpret musical networks in the early modern period. I’ve also delivered conference papers on that touch on this topic. But this is the first paper I’ve written that is devoted entirely to question of how (and whether) musicology could engage with Atlantic studies. Continue reading
I’m working on my syllabus for next semester. This is a new class at a relatively new job, and I have spent approximately 1,000 hours agonizing over the structure of the class and the difficulty of the readings, tweaking the language of the course description, and trying to find the most fair and opportune balance for the assignments. But mostly, making this syllabus has made me reconsider the role of listening in the classroom. Listening to music, that is.
Since I teach at an elite conservatory where all of the students are training to be (or already are) professional performers, we listen to music in every class meeting. This particular course, on representations of the “exotic” in western music from c. 1600 to today, features approximately 30 pieces of music. I treat these pieces like primary sources. The students are expected to listen to the assigned piece in advance, and in class we listen to excerpts in order to ground our discussion. I introduce other musical examples to illustrate points or guide the discussion in new directions. Sometimes the students draw on their own experiences as performers, making connections between the course materials and music they’ve encountered elsewhere. Continue reading
If you have gone hunting for early American music, you probably came across warhorses like 17th-century psalms, “Yankee Doodle” and other Revolutionary songs, maybe William Billings’s extremely popular “Chester” (don’t know this last one? Watch a very earnest John Adams sing it here). All of these can make for excellent musical examples to enliven a class or conference presentation (and I’ll write about music for both those scenarios in the future). However, sometimes listening to recordings of psalms or military marches feels too much like eating a virtuous salad, and not enough like eating ice cream. My survey of recordings is completely unscientific—happily, there is far too much diversity in early American music to provide anything like comprehensive coverage in a blog post—but it seems to me that there is a dearth of albums that are meant for pleasure rather than instruction. Continue reading