…and the musicologist, home from the podium

Writing this the night Phil posted his exhausted post-mortem, I’m in somewhat the same shape. I heard some fine papers, some not-so-fine, and even stepped out of my specialty to enjoy a friend’s Renaissance paper. Friday I quite literally never got out of the book exhibit—talking to my prospective publisher, to people in my area of research (conferring about sources, in some cases), to old friends, to people who had heard my paper on Thursday afternoon and wanted to talk about it, and so on. This is the sort of thing that people look at and say “those lazy professors,” but this kind of networking is a once-a-year activity, and an invaluable one.

It is public knowledge (if you know where to look) that this year I was a member of the Paul Pisk Prize committee, the committee that recognizes and rewards one student (that is, a person who has not yet finished his or her doctorate and is thus still a student) who presented a paper at this national meeting. I will be general, so as not to single out this one or that, but for the most part, I found them to be wonderful, a good half ready for publication in a scholarly journal right now. The younger scholars are asking really fun and interesting questions, digging into motherlode source materials that will yield great results for some time to come. Bravi, all! These were wonderful to read. The winner was superb but (frankly) so were several others. I was left with the sense of a really healthy, thriving discipline with a variety of intellectual approaches.

Most notable, from my perspective, was the absence of fashionable, manufactured-hot-topic-of-the-quarter papers. (“Radical Musicology,” if you will, victim-of-the-month-studies, whatever.) Also, there was very little old-school, here’s-the-old-methodology-in-a-slightly-different-area stuff, thank God; trees really shouldn’t have to die for that either. New areas, under-examined repertories, new methodologies relevant to the questions at hand (as opposed to retrofitted methodologies that may or may not illuminate), penetrating questions and thought. I wonder if this is the unexpectedly positive result of the culture wars that have raged in our discipline since the middle 1980s. people are not afraid to ask political questions now, and they no longer hide behind “objectivity” and “the music itself” and other shields, but likewise they understand that manufactured, fashionable anger and resentment are for the most part not “transgressive” but, rather, utterly tedious and predictable, and they likewise understand that their musicianship had better be rock solid or they and their work really will be remembered, and not the way they’d like. When one is on the market, any publicity is not necessarily good publicity. In any case, I did not encounter any us-vs.-them mutterings about methodological or ideological camps; I just heard papers and talked to people. I suspect most of us are really sick of the polarized environment that has flourished—poisoned the well, better—for the better part of two decades.

So I have some post-convention correspondence to catch up on, and lots of sleep—the attendant family visit took its toll on me too. The one rule about AMS meetings is that you return on Sunday desperately needing a weekend to recover, and suddenly it’s Monday morning.

Envoy for readers in the United States: LOG OFF AND GO VOTE. Vote as if you may never again have the opportunity.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to …and the musicologist, home from the podium

  1. I realize this is short question with a potentially huge and complicated answer, but what were the defining characteristics in musicology of the culture wars since the mid 80s, and who were the two “us” and “them” camps?
    I’m especially interested because I wonder if it parallels or is separate from the Uptown/Downtown divide among composers during that same period (and going back to the 60s).

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’ll take one crack at this. The divide between so-called New Musicology and Old Musicology was based–predictably–on an oversimplified straw-man-ization of previous strains of musicological thought and a rather over-ambitious trumpeting of NM’s “newness.” Like “downtown” composition (if I’m getting this right), NM took more active interest in popular music and musicians, but in contrast to the popular touch it couched its Criticism in the paradigms and vocabulary of (often French) literary theorists, which resulted in scholarly prose at the very limits of abstruseness and impenetrability. NM also took great interest in Gender Studies, a group of areas not well represented in previous musicological work.
    There was a good deal of talking at cross purposes, as I recall it (and I went through graduate school and the job market in the dog days of the debate). OM was presented as narrow, straitened, positivistic, and unconcerned with music and cultural criticism, despite the great volume of critical work (including that done by the Grand Old Men of the discipline). NM was muttered about in tones of the-savages-are-coming-this-way resentment. There was a great deal of polarization and mutual contempt, and I’m sure that many departments, research departments in particular, are going to be paying the price for a long time to come. Whenever I read novels about academic departments–usually English departments–like Jane Smiley’s *Moo*, James Hynes’s *Lecturer’s Tale*, or Richard Russo’s *Straight Man* (all enthusiastically recommended), I could easily see musicological parallels.
    Anyone else like to chime in? For personal reasons, my position on the OM/NM divide cannot be considered in any way objective.

  3. Phil says:

    I’m curious what you mean by “victim-of-the-month studies.” Are you referring to something in particular? That’s a pejorative usually used to refer to things like queer studies, women’s studies, African-American studies, and so on. Is that what you mean? And you are glad that these topics are now no longer to be found at AMS?

  4. ECG says:

    Awwwwwwww s***, JB, NOW you done it…admin fight! admin fight! [shapes oncomers into bustling human ring to better view forthcoming NM-OM prison yard brawl]

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