Barnet Bound has a good post in response to my own from a few days ago. In the first part he thinks a bit about how parallelistic thinking* is still valuable despite whatever may be said against it, and he’s right. For one thing, any kind of political or social interpretation of music would be impossible without it, and my own work would basically disappear if I were denied the ability to draw speculative lines between various nodal points within a total system of culture. To get back to my original parody post, I don’t think the basic idea of reading unspoken (and perhaps unconsciously-held) social attitudes in architectural details is silly in itself. For example, the hideous McMansiony architecture I’ve gotten to know rather well during my time living in Austin** seems to me to encode certain social pretentions, not least the desire for a cut-rate appearance of prosperity. The odd proportions of vaulted grand foyers that are just a tad too narrow (because whatever kind of house it is, the lot it is built on is basically a tract lot) seem to me to bear mute witness to the contemporary middle-class gamble that the appearance of success will turn into success itself.
The thing is, I live here, I know these neighborhoods, and I know what it’s like to live here. So while my architectural interpretation here is speculative, it’s built on the kind of intimate daily experience of life in early 21st-century suburbia that some future historian of this period will have to built up painstakingly and at second hand.*** Which means that the key here is research. To avoid making specious, superficial parallels, you have to develop a feel for that fine grain of history through a lot of reading — not just published stuff either, but the archives of people and institutions connected to your chosen field of history.
And what do you get from archival research? It’s hard to put it briefly and well, but I guess I’d say that you have the feeling of being backstage at history. Reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, puts you in the audience: you’re watching as Ginsberg cuts the figure of a ragged-robed Old Testament prophet of the Atomic Age, filled with apocalyptic visions of Moloch. Spend time with the Ginsberg papers, though, and you can see Ginsberg off-stage; you can more clearly measure the distance between the public persona and the private person. Reading the unpublished notebook of a depressed, stoned 25-year-old Ginsberg a few years before Howl, you see someone who looks less like an ecstatic mad-eyed shaman and more like George Costanza, pissed off at himself for being stuck in Patterson NJ and living with his Dad, underemployed, and unable to get laid. It’s like wandering backstage at The Magic Flute and seeing Sarastro smoking a cigarette and playing cards. Spending time in archives gives you the chance to see history in its underwear.
Which is why you really should go and read Barnet Bound’s post. He makes a point that I’ve often stewed over — how few research grants are targeted specifically to Americanist research. My wife likes to tease me about how other professors’ spouses get to tag along on research trips to, say, Naples or Paris, and all I have to offer is Newark NJ (home of the redoubtable Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies Archive). But beyond this, as BBound points out, “there is precious little money out there to encourage archival work in
If you are doing European music, well, sometimes it
seems like people are tripping over themselves to give you money. The
AMS has no less than three travel grants for research outside of the
United States, the Bartlet, the Wolf, and the Powers grants. At my own
University, there is a travel grant for research in Europe that my
colleagues regularly get, plus a grant within my department for travel
which is limited to music before 1950. Plus, there are a number of
interdisciplinary centers at my school which give quite a bit a support
to musicologists, but are limited in spirit if not name to non-American
research: centers for medieval and renaissance studies, for 17th- and
18th-century studies, and so on. And then of course there are the
various federal programs like the Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, the FLAS,
and so on. There are no equivalents for these Eurocentric programs, in
the AMS, at my university, or in my department.
Tell it. Scholars who work on John Cage or Duke Ellington have to do the same kind of archival digging as those working on Haydn or Josquin, and it ain’t cheap.
*Is this a word? No? Well, it is now!
**To all you people who think Austin is a rock’n’roll village with cute sleepy streets of tall old trees and picturesquely dilapidated bungaloes, well, it is, but only if you earn 200K a year and can afford to buy a house downtown. To everyone else, it’s off to the suburbs with you, and Austin’s sprawl looks like sprawl everywhere.
***Of course, what our future historian has that I don’t is distance: my comments here are doubtless inflected by class prejudice (i.e., the traditional middle-class disdain for the middle class), my dislike of living in the ‘burbs, and various things I’m too blinkered even to be self-aware about.