Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Music Scholars come to Music City

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - At 3am on November 7th, a woman in Nashville, having learned that her husband was in Fuel Bar and Nightclub with another woman, came by and called him out into the parking lot, writes Ralph Locke. A quarrel erupted, she cut him in the back with a broken bottle, and he took out a gun and fired a warning shot in the air. I heard about the incident the next morning on the local TV news, and could not help but thinking that it sounded like a country-and-western song.

I was one of some two thousand musicologists and music theorists who were in Nashville that week, attending the joint annual meetings of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory. Our hotel was a short walk from Second Street, and many of us walked by Fuel at one point or another. After I heard the news about the violent episode, I asked around but was relieved not to find anybody who had been within shooting distance of Fuel (or, I really mean, being-shot distance) during the wee hours of the 7th.

Aside from newsworthy events of that sort, Nashville - the epicenter of the country-music industry, featuring dozens of high-level, if sometimes too well-fueled, clubs and bars at which an amazing array of hopeful performers strut their stuff - proved an inspired choice. We academics like to flatter ourselves as open-minded, and there are few things that can force open a music scholar’s mind with more drastic efficacy than encountering music of a sort that he or she normally can barely tolerate. True, there were some country-music aficionados among us - I know one, at least - but I imagine I was more typical.

Walking by what looked like a nineteenth-century red-brick church (because that’s what it originally was), and never having heard of this building - the Ryman Auditorium - I was surprised to hear loud chords and joyous applause coming from inside. The guard at the door gave me a ticket that I suppose had been given to her by somebody leaving early. The ticket listed the main performer as Ronnie Milsap, a name that sounded faintly familiar to me, though I wasn’t sure whether it belonged to a woman or a man.

I quickly discovered that Milsap is one of the most beloved male country-music artists and the first country superstar to have been born blind. (He has had, across his decades-long career, more number-one songs on the country chart than any performer except George Strait and Conway Twitty.) We all sat in wooden pews, and people were bringing food and drink from the concessions in the lobby into the hall, as if this were a big outdoor festival. The audience loved Milsap’s banter about his career, and they welcomed as old favorites such love-forever-lost songs as “That Girl Who Waits on Tables Used to Wait for Me at Home.”

Quite a contrast to the sessions at the scholarly conference two blocks up the hill: no shouts of love and appreciation from the floor, for one thing! To be fair, though, many of the attendees noted that there was less contentiousness during this year’s sessions than has sometimes occurred in the past. Perhaps the two societies’ program committees chose particularly well: the papers that I attended were on a very high level. But the people in the audience can take some credit, too. The discussion and debate - often plentiful - was generally carried out in a remarkably constructive spirit. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of methodological pluralism: scholars may be beginning to accept that no one approach or interpretive angle necessarily invalidates another.

A particular excitement at any scholarly meeting surrounds the exhibit of new books. The tables for the Boydell and Brewer/University of Rochester Press family of firms received many visitors and many book orders. I edit URP’s Eastman Studies in Music series, so I looked on with particular pleasure - while trying to be inconspicuous! - as visitors to the booth discovered such recent titles as Beethoven’s Century, by Hugh Macdonald, and Variations on the Canon, a book of new essays created in tribute to the great pianist and critic Charles Rosen. (I kept hearing remarks along the lines of “Look at these names: Treitler, Lockwood, Kerman, even Rosen himself…!”) The fact that the many important books published by Toccata Press are now distributed by Boydell further enriched the wares on display.

But the biggest “wows” were heard as people opened the covers of Boydell’s richly illustrated Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents. Carter turns 100 on 11 December 2008 and continues to compose actively. A wealth of previously unpublished documents, scores, letters and photographs in the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation (in Basel, Switzerland) enabled the authors - Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler - to include 90 illustrations of this material, 60 of them in color. The documents are connected by a flowing and thoughtful text: this is one picture book that can be read with pleasure and profit from beginning to end. Sometimes, at the book table, it seemed that people who picked up this inviting book could barely stop themselves from reading on and on.

And maybe that is the scholar’s equivalent of the whoops, cheers, and applause heard at country-music concerts!


Anonymous said...

It's pretty sad that you'd never heard of the Ryman or Milsap. I keep thinking musicologists will come out of the classical closet some day, but I guess some of them just want to stay there.

Anonymous said...

That's an ungenerous remark from Anonymous. The whole point in the opening of my posting was that--despite my general lack of interest in country music--I did choose to go into the auditorium and hear the music! Similarly, many other musicologists at the Nashville conference--whatever their musical preferences and scholarly orientations--gave glowing reports to me about the remarkable performers they heard in the bars and clubs along Second Street.
More generally, most musicologists that I know do have great familiarity with other musical traditions than (as Anonymous puts it) "just" classical. In particular, many kinds of popular music. Not only do we know and like it, we study it. There are always numerous papers on various pop-music topics at our conferences nowadays.
But country music is a different story. Many people in big cities, in academia, etc., find the whole tradition hard to fathom, or actively distasteful (e.g., because of the cultural values in many of the song lyrics). I tried to touch on this in a lighthearted way.