Does Grad School Make you a Bad Reader?

November 24, 2007 at 2:29 pm 2 comments

  Before I consumed lots and lots of turkey on Thursday, I went to go see Alex Ross read from his new book, The Rest is Noise at the Harvard Book Store. Actually, I was late, and just saw him handling the Q & A, but not so late that I didn’t get him to sign my copy of the book. Thanks Mr. Ross!

                So I sat down to read a book for pleasure, which is something I wish that I did more often. Ross’s book opens with a chapter about Strauss and Mahler, and the May 1906 performance of Strauss’s opera Salome in Graz. Basically, Ross uses  the Graz performance as a jumping off point for the liquidation of romanticism in music, and Mahler’s and Strauss’s role in pushing music forward.

                Ross has a rare gift to make you want to stop reading and go listen to the music – which is probably going to make it hard to get through his book, but so be it. But I want to focus on two sentences which struck me. At the end of his third paragraph, while recounting all the attendees of the concert, famous or otherwise, he wrote this:


Among them may have been the seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. Hitler later told Strauss’s son that he had borrowed money from relatives to make the trip. There was even a fictional character present – Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the tale of a composer in league with the devil.


For some reason, I stumbled on this passage. Why does it matter that Hitler might have been at the performance? Ross elaborates a bit on page 10: “As for Adolf Hitler, it is not certain that he was actually there; he may merely have claimed to have attended, for whatever reason. But something about the opera evidently stuck in his memory.” Which raised yet another question: is there any reason not to believe Hitler’s claim that he attended? The musicology grad student in me was baffled by this, in fact, by the strange, elliptical presence of a teenage Hitler in Ross’s account at all.

                Also, I had to read the final sentence of the paragraph, about Leverkühn, several times before I finally got it – that there was a scene in Doctor Faustus where Leverkühn  attends precisely this concert, something that I didn’t understand until I read the passage slowly out loud to my partner Gabe, and then it made sense. I can chalk that one up to fatigue (and having only read bits of Doctor Faustus), but my feathers were ruffled beyond all reason anyway, and I wanted to know why.

                I think part of it stems from the way that graduate students are taught to read (and write – but that is another story). In short, we read for argument and information, and – if not without pleasure – then definitely without much importance placed on the luxuriousness of the presentation. Time and again, it is hammered into the novice musicologist to read for argument, to synthesize, and to pull out the broad threads of historiography that are build out of the individual words, sentences, and paragraphs that the writer constructs. Similarly, we are taught to read for flaws in the argument, for flimsy use of evidence. As for the facts, we are encouraged to absorb what we can, but in my experience the emphasis around seminar tables is on constructing meaning out of the most interesting facts, rather than mastering all of them.  And I think all of these are laudable goals, but reading the first chapter of Ross’s book forced me to confront the fact that I have trained myself to read in a way that was utterly incompatible with what Ross was out to achieve.

                In other words, I doubt that any musicologist would phrase the two underlying pieces of information that Ross communicated in quite the way that he did. We might follow up the sentence on Hitler immediately with something like “this is doubtful because of x and y, but nevertheless significant because of z.” We would probably also write something more linear but less narratively juicy than Ross’s bit on Leverkühn; perhaps something like “the premiere was so important, that Mann, in Doctor Faustus, placed his character Leverkühn there.”

                Of course, I’m not suggesting that musicologists copy-edit Alex Ross’s prose – the result would be disastrous. Ross’s gift is writing in a fluid, vivid style which reaches far more readers than all but a few of the music “public” musicologists. Furthermore, his book appears to be a mosaic New Yorker length articles which add up to a whole larger than the sum of their parts, rather than a thoroughgoing narrative, much less one that radically revises existing twentieth-century historiography (if such a thing can even be said to exist in some monolithic form). This is made all the more interesting since Ross’s keynote speech at the 2005 Harvard Graduate Music Forum Conference was precisely about what music journalism and musicology could learn from one other. I don’t remember all of his comments, but one thing I did take away was that he thought academic musicology could be served by more off-the-cuff writing, and that music journalism might be able to take something from the precision that many musicologists strive for in their research.

                What I am suggesting is that somehow my training as a musicologist interrupted my reading of a passage that I think many readers would have grasped instantly. My stumbling over these sentences made me think more about how I read, and how graduate school encourages you to focus your attention on certain aspects of reading – not just for academic prose, but as a default habit for all kinds of text – while crippling one’s capacity to take pleasure in beautiful, elliptical, evocative prose.

Entry filed under: musicology.

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  • 1. Dan Wang  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Nice point!

    I am reminded of Charles Rosen’s book of three published lectures, “The Frontiers of Meaning,” in which he talks about the separation between a work of criticism and the work it criticizes. Since great works “explain themselves,” or set up the criteria for judgment that they themselves answer, criticism is a superfluous exercise – unless the value of criticism exists independently of its subject. Seen in this light, criticism itself becomes a kind of art form.

    This has always struck me as true, which is why I am so perplexed when I come across scholarship that is – how to put it? – tediously dry. Some of it reminds me of language that would suit a technical paper in some hardcore field in science, and I sometimes think that as musicologists we yearn for that level of objectivity and (somehow, therefore) authority. But the two are not the same. A physics paper is in service of its subject, while a musicology paper needn’t be. Another great Charles Rosen paraphrase: “Musicology is to musicians what ornithology is to the birds.”

    I find it fitting that Charles Rosen exemplifies the qualities of writing under discussion – concise but generous, beautiful without excess, suitable for both research and leisure.

  • 2. Drew Massey  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Dan – These Rosen essays sound interesting. I also wonder if some of it might be bound up, for better or worse, in a tradition where musicologists frequently come from performing backgrounds. On the one hand, they know a lot about music, but in my case at least, my undergraduate education could not really have been called “liberal” by any stretch of the imagination. As a result, I had a lot of catch-up work to do when I got to grad school about the humanities in general, and learning how to write in particular…


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