Musicologists in hell

Phil Ford

I’m leaving for Seattle tomorrow, for the Experience Music Project, a big pop music conference that for the past few years has tried to bring academics, journalists, and even the odd working musician together. (Chuck Klosterman has a funny essay about EMP in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs called “I, Rock Chump.”) This is my first time going. I’m reading a paper on the Holmes acetates, a group of records that John Clellon Holmes, a novelist friend of Jack Kerouac’s, made with a borrowed acetate cutter. This was a cumbersome kind of recording device that was made obsolete by the advent of recordable magnetic tape. You would buy blank acetates, which were metal discs coated in shellac or some other pliable material, and the cutter would inscribe sounds on it, making a unique record. The Holmes acetates were made from late 1949 to early 1951, when Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Holmes were still basically unpublished nobodies, and they document their early attempts to marry their burgeoning literary sensibilities to jazz. With mixed results, it must be said.

A friend who is on the academic job market showed me the academic jobs wiki, whose existence I had never even suspected. This is a site for the gathering of up-to-the-minute word-on-the-street news about all academic searches in every humanities discipline, including musicology and ethnomusicology. Whoa. There’s a lot of information here — who is interviewing where, who got what job, which searches have ended without a hire, etc. I had no idea that the workings of the academic job market had become so public. By custom, such things have always been handled with a certain degree of discretion, not to say secrecy. No longer, I guess. This would be another all-that-is-solid-melts-in-air moment, where the tornado of “creative destruction” loosed by the flux of technological change touches down on another settled habit and rips it up like a Kansas trailer park in July. Is this a good thing? Discuss.

On the subject of academic job searches: here is an academic joke my father-in-law told me this Christmas. It works for any discipline. It’s probably not funny unless you have an academic job. Maybe not even then. I include it because I feel guilty at all the content I meant to provide before going to EMP and didn’t. Sorry blog. I still love you.

OK, the joke: A musicologist dies and goes to heaven. Obviously, this is a very unusual event. St. Peter is a little unsure of what to do. He says, well, you’re the first musicologist to go to heaven, so congratulations and all that, but won’t you get a little lonely being up here with all your friends in hell? And the musicologist thinks about it and says, well, you have a point there. And St. Peter says, why don’t you go down to hell for a day and see what it’s like? Then you can choose where you want to go.

So the musicologist goes to hell and sees all his old friends, all the people he’s been drinking with at hotel lounges at AMS meetings for all these years, and he’s overjoyed to see them again. And the place looks pretty nice! They’re sitting around on wing-backed leather chairs in a posh clubroom, sipping brandy and discussing books and ideas (and swapping some racy gossip too) while graduate students eagerly do their photocopying for them and deans come in with stacks of money for new projects and library acquisitions. And the musicologist goes back to St. Peter and says, you know, I think I’d prefer being in hell. So the next day the musicologist goes back to hell and sees his friends sitting in a cold barren lecture hall on crappy, beat-down, stained old chairs that flip over if you try to sit back in them, and they’re sitting around bitching about how little they’re getting paid and how many committees they have to serve on, and the deans are rushing in and dumping buckets of icy water over them and the graduate students are all yelling at them, and the musicologist says, what happened to the chairs and brandy and good conversation and eager grad students and nice deans? And one of the musicologists in hell says, well, that was your interview.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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