Jake Cohen’s Guest Blog: Scaling the musicological walls

March 5, 2008 at 10:00 am 3 comments

In the Fall 2007 bulletin of the Society for American Music, Susan Key called on members to break through the constricting boundaries of academe, to “scale the walls” as she put it, exposing a broader public to the unique perspective of music scholarship usually reserved for more esoteric realms.[1] Key holds an obvious position from which to assert this directive – she is the director of the Keeping Score series, a set of videos featuring everyone’s favorite mild-mannered modernist maestro, Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT delivers a set of music appreciation performances/lectures/documentaries, taking over where Leonard Bernstein left off. His audience is the one that musicologists face whenever they hope to bring their work and ideas outside of the university setting: educated and intelligent, but not necessarily musically-literate or musically–knowledgeable.

Recently, I experienced this very sensation that Key advocates; it was a revelatory experience and an empowering moment for a young, budding musicologist. I took my knowledge of music and my unique analytical approach and delivered it to a knowledgeable audience outside of the claustrophobic world of music scholarship. This transcendent moment just so happened to take place at an interdisciplinary academic conference.

OK, I know, it’s not as though I was really scaling those ivory tower walls that close in academia. Yet in a room of about forty attendees at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association Annual Conference in Albuquerque, NM, I felt myself break through that boundary between musicologist and everyone else in the world, and truly feel as though I was (dare I say?) helping people by imparting my knowledge to them.

The conference itself is a hodge-podge of topics dealing with American culture in the Southwestern U.S. and Texas. Unlike a typical music conference, panels are not merely broken up into subjects, but there are certain “areas,” each with their own track of sessions. The interdisciplinary nature of a field as broad as popular culture or American culture allows, even necessitates, this partitioning. So there is the Cowboy Culture area, with eight or nine panels devoted to this topic, and presenters from various academic fields, from anthropology to history to sociology and so forth. There’s a hip-hop area, and an atomic age area, and a Marvel Comics area. And then there’s the Grateful Dead area.

The Grateful Dead caucus, as it has become known, has met consecutively under the auspices of this conference for eleven straight years. The presenters are sociologists, communications theorists, computer scientists, political scientists, independent scholars, musicians, ethnomusicologists, music theorists, historians, and American studies scholars.

This year I presented a talk called “Harmonic and Geographic Ambiguity in the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station.” It was (I thought) an excellent paper that drew on the connections between the musical representation of place (my current intellectual kick) and a Dead song called Terrapin Station.  In the paper, I talked about how the opening section of the song is basically a strophic modal exploration, alternating primarily between F major and C major with a beautiful F Lydian vocal melody above. I did what musicologists do, breaking down the harmonic and formal parameters of the song to illustrate the lack of a definitive tonal statement, no V-I cadence to tell which key the song is in. Not until the second section of the song do we hear an authentic cadence, and by that point, it is in A major.[2] The synthesis of all this analysis is that, much like the geographic location of the fictional Terrapin Station, the harmony of the song is ambiguous, wandering, and never wholly tangible in any way that can be pinned down.

I faced an interesting challenge in presenting this material to a non-music audience. While everyone in the group was a music lover, not all were music literate. Needless to say, five minutes of my talk were given over to what I affectionately called “The Idiot’s Guide to Common Practice tonality,” a little primer on the basics of tonic, dominant, cadences, and what it means to cadence on the tonic — how that feels as though you’ve come home.

My intended reaction was that people would see the links between the song’s geographical identity and its harmonic identity, and understand that the slightly airy, ephemeral feeling of the modal section was tied in some way to the ineffable and intangible nature of this place, Terrapin Station. But the actual reactions were so much different, and personally, more rewarding.

One of the conference attendees, a sociologist well-respected in her field, exuberantly informed me that my presentation had “explained that, musically, there is a rationale for something Deadheads have all felt and known for years.” She was so happy, because she finally understood that musical moment. Other participants echoed her sentiments. It was as if the entire room had experienced a communal “Eureka!” moment.

And it suddenly occurred to me: these fellow scholars benefited from my talk in ways I never imagined. My intent was never to “explain” why the song does what it does—it was always to illustrate the unique connection between musical place and harmony. That, in itself, I thought was interesting enough to generate some lively discussion. Yet it was an entirely unintended effect that my talk had on the audience. My colleagues were, to use Dead-esque terminology, “turned on” to the inner musical workings of a song that they all knew, inside and out. I had never felt this way before: what I do academically could actually help non-musicians better understand their world.

Musicologists can save the planet! Susan Key hopes so, my cynicism thinks slightly better of that notion, though I’ll keep the dream alive. However, we can certainly bring our knowledge, approaches, methodologies, and critical elucidations to a group of individuals who are educated and intelligent, but not necessarily musically-literate or musically-knowledgeable. These individuals just so happen to remain within those very walls Key asks us to scale.


[1] Susan Key, “Standpoint: Scaling the Walls,” The Bulletin of the Society for American Music 23, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 45.

[2] The version I used of this song streams at http://www.archive.org/details/gd77-02-26.sbd.owen.23808.sbeok.shnf. This was the first live performance of Terrapin Station, and in my opinion, one of the best ever.

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3 Comments

  • 1. banagale  |  November 15, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    Posted by Ryan Banagale at 2008-03-08 13:19

    Thanks for this post, Jake.
    This desire to be more “public” with musicology seems to continue to gain momentum. I wonder if it might be a side effect of more and more musicology PhDs and not a huge change in the number of available academic jobs. At the SAM conference in San Antonio last week, there was an entire session dedicated to work “Outside the Academy.”
    I hope that places like SF Symphony will be able to make use of musicologists in this quest to scale the walls. This doesn’t seem all that likely given the already narrow budget margins of most symphonic organizations. However, I hear that the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra may be hiring a PhD or two to assist in their ambitious, but very exciting, “Global Concert Series.” I also hear that it might pay better than some entry-level professorships!

  • 2. Jake Cohen  |  November 15, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Posted by Jake Cohen at 2008-03-09 14:03
    Ryan –
    The point you make about supply and demand within the musicology job market is something that, unfortunately, is often masked by encouraging statistics and information such as that compiled by Sarah Gerk on this site last December. Her data shows that pop music, jazz, world music, ethnomusicology, and American music are all of the most sought after specialties right now, and of course many job postings require applicants to have experience and teaching abilities in more than one of the aforementioned fields. On a side note, I wonder if this is creating a more “liberal arts” musicologist, one who knows a bit about everything, but not a lot about any one thing. Of course, we all do still have our dissertation topics…

    But the point is that Gerk’s data could mislead the applicant into thinking “well, I’ve got experience in three of those fields, so I’ll have an easier time finding a job than someone who can only teach the traditional historical musicology topics and wrote their dissertation on Haydn’s influence on Mozart and Beethoven.” The fallacy in that is to think that we’re the only one. Maybe I’m feeling overly pessimistic this week, but it seems that the increased demand for intra-disciplinary scholars just brings with it a higher number of applicants with just those qualifications. I wonder how much better off in the job search someone is with an American music specialty than others. At the same time, I think Gerk’s findings do reflect a good trend in the field, and are, for the time being, for me still quite encouraging in my choice of field.

  • 3. Frank T. Manheim  |  November 15, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Posted by Frank T. Manheim at 2008-05-29 19:06

    I am glad you responded to Susan Key’s guest editorial, though I see that you are somewhat confused by her challenge. One of the problems with scaling walls is that once music professionals enter the realm of the music establishment they may not realize there are walls. Composers of the 19th and earlier centuries did not have much problem with walls, for they identified their role in music differently. I dare say that there’s not a professional “serious music” composer today who can identify with the communication between Edvard Grieg and his German composer-teacher Salamon Jadassohn.Jadassohn urged Grieg to give up his leaning toward folk-music, nationalistically oriented music, often in simple genres like songs and piano pieces. He suggested that Grieg devote himself to larger works like symphonies (Jadassohn had a high opinion of Grieg’s talent). Grieg is said to have replied “I leave to the Beethovens and Brahms the construction of great musical edifices. I prefer to build humbler abodes in which my countrymen may feel comfortable. The idea that an artist’s (musician’s ) highest duty is to his or her own muse has so pervaded the establishment, that I suspect that even composers or musicologists who want to reach out to the general public somehow feel a revulsion when it comes to figure out what their role actually is.


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