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“Capital Ideas” in Music: Part I

June 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Introduction

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the joint Annual Conference of the Canadian University Music Society (MusCan) and Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (CAML). The title for this posting derives from this year’s theme for the broader Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, of which the MusCan / CAML conference was a part, and where various scholarly organizations in Canada hold their annual meetings. This year’s venue was the University of Ottawa, its location within the Canadian capital likely accounting for the pun-worthy theme.

My ability to travel to Ottawa was made possible by winning CAML’s first-time presenter award, which covers pretty well all travel expenses. My talk lasted 20 minutes, which necessitated covering just the essentials of my research interests…musical omnivorousness, recommender systems, the construction and problematic aspects of genre, and the methodology for my doctoral research (a topic I have yet to discuss on here). The purpose of this posting isn’t to provide an overview of my talk, however. Rather, I want to discuss the other ideas that emerged from the conference, including the ones from presentations that were part of the same session as mine, and which shared some affinities with my own research.

The talks I attended on Wednesday tied directly to MusCan, so I suppose the ideas I took away (and the questions I brought) were more uniquely tied to my library and information science background and the perspectives of casual listeners. Like the CAML session where I presented, each session consisted of four talks lasting (ideally) 20 minutes each, followed by 10 minutes of questions.

Europe

The session on Europe oriented more closely towards “classical” music, with presentations that had personal resonance for me. Kenneth DeLong, from the University of Calgary, talked about the usage of musical excerpts from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval (Florestan, Coquette, and Lettres dansantes) to underscore the first person interior monologue in Fräulein Else, a 1924 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. The name might be familiar to Stanley Kubrick fans, as Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle was the inspiration for Eyes Wide Shut (although one could imagine the novella under consideration as more fodder for Kubrick as well). No questions emerged right away after the talk, so I felt compelled to throw out my own half-baked ones. One related to parallels that emerged for me between the novella’s climax, where a naked Else’s thoughts are further underscored by the Carnaval excerpts, and the dances / “mad scenes” from Richard Strauss’ operas Salome and Elektra. Of course, I realize that Schumann’s music is supposed to be diegetic, and that one can’t reach any definitive conclusions “as an academic” (to use DeLong’s words) without further evidence. But the connections seem in keeping with the turn-of-the-century Viennese Zeitgeist, and Schnitzler was a contemporary of Strauss’ (born in 1862 and 1864, respectively). Indeed, DeLong did mention that Schnitzler knew Strauss fairly well, so maybe my impertinent question wasn’t too far off, at least for further consideration of parallels, if nothing else. That said, I have no real stake in the matter, but the potential connections strike me as at least intriguing in terms of broader trends.

Adalyat Issiyeva, a doctoral candidate at McGill University, discussed the influence of French Orientalism on its Russian counterpart during the 19th century. In the realm of music, Russian composers tended to critique (at least in writing) the French approach to portraying broadly “Asian” themes… even as some of them borrowed musical ideas from the same composers. An interesting undercurrent is their admiration for Hector Berlioz, who was also French, but whose approach to orchestration a number of Russian composers found particularly noteworthy. My notes include some scribblings about artistic truth (rather than literal truth) and harmonics being important to the Russian composers discussed during this session. Some personal favourites of mine were name-checked, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (quite a bit) and Alexander Borodin (more towards the end) in relation to the topic. They were among some of the first composers I listened to when I got back into classical music in high school, so it was especially interesting to hear about another dimension related to the context in which they composed.

Also from McGill University, Christopher Antila and Lydia Huang attempted to contextualize both the “Girl” and the Mandarin from Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, drawing upon “[Michel] Foucault’s and [Homi] Bhabha’s writings about sexual and racial identities.” Is “Mimi” (Huang’s name for the Girl), for instance, actually a prostitute (per conventional wisdom), luring men like the Mandarin into a room to be robbed by her three associates? Or is her identity, even backstory, more complicated than previously imagined? Especially considering the time period during which Bartók worked on The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1924), is the title character more of a flesh-and-blood contextualized person… not so much an allegory, but more a bureaucrat who escaped from the 1911 China Revolution? Certainly, it goes to show that seemingly allegorical works don’t just “happen,” but that they are historically-situated. As well, I’ve always wondered about the city in which the work takes place. The presenters leave it at Budapest, given Bartók’s nationality, which makes sense. But for some reason, I always imagined someplace like New York, which would have had more urban hustle and bustle, as represented in the piece’s opening. In any case, it’s good to hear an original contextualization that brings the admittedly vague “story” of The Miraculous Mandarin to much deeper life.

Also original was Julie Anne Nord’s presentation about the role of the bass clarinet in Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which also happens to celebrate its 150th anniversary this month. Expanding on Strauss’ claim that the bass clarinet symbolizes “solemn resignation” on the part of King Marke, Nord draws upon Thomas Turino’s ideas of semiotic snowballing to claim that the instrument symbolizes ideas of chivalry and Marke himself throughout the opera. Among other things, the bass clarinet makes its final appearance at the beginning of the Isolde’s concluding Liebestod (“love death”), likely symbolizing the supplanting of chivalry with forgiveness of Tristan and Isolde. Interestingly, as I mentioned to Nord in the Q&A session, the bass clarinet seemed to sound more like low notes played on a regular clarinet. But the bass clarinet is there in the score, which perhaps makes the assumption (by Wagner at least) that more discerning and musically literate minds would detect the bass clarinet’s presence. And, as Nord suggested to me, perhaps it’s because of my own musical background. Indeed, my own formal training was in trumpet in middle school band, and I don’t recall bass clarinets in that. In any case, a compelling argument on the topic of “tone-speech” or timbre, which apparently isn’t studied much in music.

Identity

This session, which focused on a more diverse range of genres (albeit with two of four talks related to classical music, broadly speaking), began with a presentation by Jon-Thomas Godin (Brandon University in Manitoba) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Drawing upon a brew of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, and Sigmund Freud, Godin took a psychoanalytical approach to discussing why audiences end up feeling sympathy for the title character, even with his rather sordid actions. At the risk of oversimplifying Godin’s ideas, such sympathy emerges due to Giovanni’s lack of identity (which is defined by others in the opera) and self-awareness, the latter equating with a sense of mortality, which only emerges as he is literally being dragged to Hell near the end. Prior to that, however, Giovanni is more action-oriented, his thrill-seeking in petites morts standing in for achieving self-awareness and identity (even if, despite his reputation, he’s generally unsuccessful in his pursuits of women).

The second presentation, by Steven Hicks of Carleton University’s Music and Culture program, discussed the identity of one composer tied in with that of another, with deeper cultural and political undertones. He focused on Richard Wagner’s A Pilgrimage to Beethoven, which I found rather amusing, as I kept thinking about Wagner’s piece as a kind of proto-FanFic, with him as the tale’s Mary Sue. Wagner inserts himself into his story as someone who is eventually able to befriend Beethoven (never minding that Wagner was a young adolescent when Beethoven passed), diligently drawing connections between himself and his idol as “pure” artists. A moneyed Englishman also appears in the story as an antagonist, with the ultimate goal of figuratively “collecting” composers in order to build prestige. Of course, there’s a strong German nationalistic element as well… at least in a cultural sense, given that Beethoven was Austrian and Wagner German (even though Germany didn’t actually form until 1871, roughly around the final decade of Wagner’s life). Indeed, one can imagine the story tying in with the notion that Germans care more about art and culture instead of money, unlike “those people” who may or may not be wealthy Englishmen.

Although Wagner certainly has cult-like aspects attached to him, the next presentation by Dawn Stevenson (also of Carleton University Music and Culture program) talked about an actual cult leader and his own dabblings in music. More specifically, she discussed the formation of the Apollo Stars by none other than L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. Of course, L. Ron was a polymath… more so than Wagner… who knew what was what, on everything under the sun, including music. He developed a rather idiosyncratic view on, and quite colonialist classification system of, various musics of the world. Whatever one thinks of his beliefs about music, the formation of the Apollo Stars reflected his own awareness of trends in popular music over the years, as well as his own interest in possible connections among different kinds of genres. Given my own research interests, this idea intrigued me, so I asked after the talk what kinds of discernable connections existed among the music on the Apollo Stars’ 1974 album The Power of Source (especially given its ostensibly religious connections ), and how Hubbard conceptualized connections across genres. Stevenson mentioned that there seemed to be nothing readily discernible in terms of connections among the album’s tracks, and that Hubbard’s ideas about connections across genres mentioned concepts like “melody,” “harmony,” and other such terms. On that topic, perhaps it remains up to an exceptionally intrepid scholar to try getting into the mind of old L. Ron, although it seems apt to take a few minutes to chill and listen to a sample of his stylin’s…

The final MusCan talk I attended was given by Jada Watson of Université Laval, and focused on the connections between various kinds of country music and the construction of geo-cultural identities by country artists. More specifically, Watson considered Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, and (perhaps better-known to Canadian audiences) Corb Lund of Alberta as case studies related to different regions. More “hard core” musicians tend to have a firmer sense of place in their music, while other “soft shell” musicians talk more broadly about romanticizing rural versus urban environments. Of course, such tendencies may change over the course of one’s career, from writing and performing songs about one’s sense of place to a broader notion of “the simple life.” (Although I’m not sure where one would actually be “tipping cows in Tulsa.”) Interestingly, the ideas from Watson’s presentation resonate with my own research, as a fair number of respondents in my study have made some interesting observations about the kinds of country music they like. More specifically, they’ll contrast their country preferences with the kinds they don’t; in one case, one respondent described alt-country (which Watson described as a more “hard core” kind of country) as a contrast to “contemporary country” with its pro-America (or, perhaps pro-‘Murica) stylings. It will be interesting to see what further comments emerge regarding country music in my own research, especially bearing in mind that I’m speaking with people who are currently living in an urban environment in Canada (which, as alluded to above, has its own versions of country music as well).

(Actually, at least a few times when traveling to and from Texas during my time living there, I might have driven through “where 69 meets 40” [U.S. and Interstate routes, respectively].)

Conclusion to Part I

As one can see just from the sessions I attended, MusCan offered attendees an opportunity to learn about music from a variety of genres. Of course, “classical” remained prominent (although it might’ve just been the sessions I attended), but it’s interesting anyway to think about how a diverse range of music can be discussed in a manner that accords them some degree of serious attention, regardless of our own personal opinions of value, and even as the narrative of “austerity” in higher education tries dictating that such research is basically frivolous. As mentioned by someone whose talk I’ll describe in the second part of this posting, there are definite reasons why various kinds of music resonate within broader cultural contexts, and they are all worthy of study, regardless of whether they are slapped with “high-“, “middle-“, or “lowbrow” labels. And certainly, that’s part of the reason why I’m doing my own research into notions of similarity beyond the conventional confines of genre… which is why I found just the handful of sessions I was able to attend at MusCan so fascinating and worth writing about.