Gina Rivera’s Guest Blog: An American in Paris

January 13, 2008 at 2:44 pm 2 comments

I talk a good game, but passport photos aside, little could have prepared me for archival research in Paris. When I arrived in the city last July, to spend a full month there in the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale and the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, I anticipated certain challenges. Life in European libraries unfolds at a distinctly different pace from in the United States. Stacks are not often open, materials are usually paged one or two at a time. There are even expectations among some librarians and curators that one should know in advance exactly what she wants to see, film or manuscript, dossier or print, and its age, relevance among the holdings of that particular institution, and shelfmark or catalogue number. Depending on one’s preparation, having these details ready at hand is sometimes a lot to ask.

I fared well in Paris last summer, not least because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. Lurking in footnotes in monographs and dissertations by scholars of the French eighteenth century, I found call numbers to several obscure nouvelles à la main, as well as a number of other leads I was curious to explore in greater detail. One Rameau scholar cites an extant draft of this or that treatise; another corroborates; still another warns that the surviving sources paint a stranger, richer picture. I remember being dumbstruck to finally find that the extent and copying profile of one manuscript draft of Rameau was neither as detailed nor as informative as previous writers have described. It is without a doubt necessary to go to Paris, go to the archives, and confirm such details for oneself. I could not imagine confidently releasing research results to the world without first coming to my own conclusions in the archive, even as so many other scholars have preceded me.

As I concluded the first of several such archival investigations in Paris last year, I wondered when I would return, and for how long. Beyond this, I thought about the somewhat ironic nature of my even being there in the first place, a minority, to be sure, as an American presence in the archives. With all of the history and repertoire that exists for me to research in my own country, from the dance of colonial New England to the music of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to modern rock soundtracks and beyond, why have I chosen to direct my energies beyond the American border? I am a foreigner in France, culturally and politically, and yet the crises of taste formation and musical aesthetics I see brewing in Paris, from the seventeenth century all the way to the present, speak to me on a personal level as manifestations of a much more universal condition: the struggle to put our experiences of music, and its performers, into words.

Perhaps it should not pique my curiosity as much as it does that I come to French studies as an outsider. Or perhaps it should. As I look around myself in libraries in Paris, the larger part of my colleagues are French men and women researching the history of their own musical culture. Here and there, one person is at work on lutenists in the seventeenth century; another peers intently at the recent edition of Rameau’s Platée by American musicologist M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet. I hear nobody paging materials related to Charles Ives’s brief stint in Paris in the early 1930s, nor do I see my French colleagues engaged in archival investigations into pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s storied relationship with the Paris Conservatoire. Instead, many of the French scholars at work in Paris last summer were investigating Rameau or the history of French opera, exactly as I was.

As I ponder these patterns more carefully, I am pleased to remind myself that my research on the history of French music, however paradoxically, has brought me into closer contact with fellow American scholars. It would have been unthinkable for me to reopen the case file on Rameau in the archives of the Académie des Sciences without first consulting Thomas Christensen, among the most recent scholars to devote considerable attention to one of the composer’s theoretical drafts housed there in manuscript. I was also pleased to make the acquaintance of Roger Briscoe as part of my project on Rameau’s theoretical works in the middle of the eighteenth century. Though he no longer researches music theories of the French Enlightenment, his advice to me as part of a new generation of young Americans at work in Paris was indispensable. I look forward to other such connections, at home and abroad, as I continue reading and reconsidering primary sources from the French eighteenth century.

And aren’t such connections the reason we set out to become musicologists in the first place? I do enjoy the solitude of the archive, without a doubt: the days spent rummaging through files and boxes, taking a break for a meal alone, conversing with one or two librarians at most. But I sought out musical scholarship as a way to connect with other people, to continue to turn over that fascinating question of how best to put our experiences of music into words. The more opinions I hear about this and other challenges in the musical and literate realm, the more I am convinced that we exist as colleagues to lighten scholarly burdens for one another, whether we find ourselves engaged in research at home or abroad.

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Entry filed under: musicology.

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2 Comments

  • 1. luis martos  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    excellent to hear you consider the personal implications of your archival work, Gina!

    i wonder what you think of the “social music revolution” of last.fm?

    (I wrote a kind of pedantic blog entry on it…garsh…
    http://www.thatstillcanring.blogspot.com )

    Luis

  • 2. Gina Rivera  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Luis, you know it’s funny I am so unfamiliar with things at Last.fm. When it first emerged a couple years ago I was intrigued, but stayed away because I simply didn’t do that much internet listening, or the internet didn’t figure in my listening. That all changed, of course, with Hello Gina. But I never quite got around to Last.fm.

    I would be curious to know whether people consider it a real discovery tool, whether they find other listeners have tastes that rub off on them.


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