Hybrid Moments: Should there/Could there be Atlantic Musicology?

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.

My approach in the paper is straightforward enough: I’m taking the three concepts of Atlantic history that David Armitage outlined in 2002 (circum-Atlantic, trans-Atlantic, and cis-Atlantic), and suggesting possible applications in music scholarship. Happily, the other papers on the session demonstrate how some of these concepts work with early American music. For example, UNC Chapel Hill graduate student Will Robin uses the cis-Atlantic concept, which, in case you need your memory refreshed, focuses on a particular location and analyzes its uniqueness by situating it in a broader Atlantic context. Will shows how members of a Boston congregation participated in a wider sacred music reform movement in the early 19th century. He uses a particularly popular hymn as his guide, tracing it from Boston back to 1780s Paris, where it began life as a Sinfonie concertante–a kind of orchestral concerto that is quite far musically and ideologically from Boston hymnody.

Although I’m working with Armitage’s concepts, I’m not exactly a partisan, and I’m certainly not trying to push Armitage’s vision at the exclusion of other takes on Atlantic history. Moreover, I think there are serious challenges for incorporating concepts from Atlantic history into musicology, particularly the study of music in America. The lion’s share of scholarship on American music looks at the 20th and 21st centuries; with that in mind, can Atlantic studies concepts be extended meaningfully to the present day? How should we define “transatlantic music” or “musical transatlanticism?” How can we apply concepts from Atlantic studies to music so that we’re not just listing every item of music or musical migrant that crossed the Atlantic…ever. (FYI, my working definition of musical transatlanticism is: music, musicians, and ideas about music that was transmitted across the Atlantic or engaged with transatlantic interlocutors, and was influenced or changed thereby. Not my most deft prose, but that’s why it’s a work in progress.)

Perhaps most importantly, I wonder about the responsibilities of interdisciplinary borrowing. I know the cross-disciplinary Atlantic studies has been discussed in the past. In musicology, the topic of interdisciplinarity has received sustained attention in print and at conferences. While I believe that musicology can benefit from Atlantic studies, I wonder if a discipline that is decidedly oriented toward the art music in the northern hemisphere–more specifically, toward Western classical music–can stretch geographically and intellectually. Or, if we do stretch, will we be too late to the Atlantic studies party?

For all my equivocating, I’m quite certain I’ll be moving forward with Atlantic musicology. But I want people to talk to. So, readers, I’d be interested in learning what interdisciplinary/Atlantic projects you’re excited about.

4 responses

  1. Sounds fascinating. I’m not a musicologist at all but it seems to me almost intuitive to take some kind of Atlantic approach. Just thinking of the transatlantic journeys of the banjo–from African slaves to Scotch-Irish immigrants in the Carolinas to Kentucky, then back over the Atlantic to Mumford & Sons & back again to the Grammys…. I’ll look forward to seeing what you find.

    • Thanks for the comment! it’s true, there are more examples of musical transatlanticism than you can shake a stick at, and British musicians’ borrowing (or, to put it less kindly, appropriation) of African American styles is a particularly rich and fraught topic (hello, Rolling Stones!). Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post after the Society for American Music conference this week, once I see how my ideas about taking a more structured approach to transatlanticism…

  2. More power to you, Glenda. I’d be honored if you’d take a peek at my cis-Atlantic project, “Votaries of Apollo: The St. Cecilia Society and the Patronage of Concert Music in Charleston, South Carolina 1766-1820” (USC Press, 2007; http://www.sc.edu/uscpress/books/2007/3705.html), and tell me what you think. My impression was that the musicological world did not care for scholarship of this type or of this historical era. Thanks–Nic Butler.

    • Hi Nic–thanks for suggesting your book, which I will read with interest! It is so valuable to have more hands on deck to sort through the historical record on early American music, especially when it comes to institutional histories and patronage structures–obviously, it’s great not to have to figure everything out from scratch. As you doubtless know, a century ago bibliographers like Oscar Sonneck poured through archives in order to assess early American concert life and publishing, but more synthetic work has emerged quite slowly.

      Also, I know from experience that musicological scholarship on 18th-century America has been waning (although since I’m an early Americanist musicologist, I believe that could be changing a bit!), so it is important for me to have cross-disciplinary interlocutors. So, personally, I am thrilled when non-musicologists work with musical materials or on music-related topics!


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