Zoe Lang’s Guest Blog: Laying Down the Ground Rules

November 19, 2008 at 11:00 am

Two weekends ago I was in Nashville (as were probably many of you) attending the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society/Society of Music Theory, or as we call it around here, AMS/SMT. The meeting was my first in a while and it was great getting caught up with everyone. I know that I speak on behalf of all the contributors to this blog when I say that it was extremely heartening to learn that amusicology has a growing readership.

Although I missed the Thursday evening panel discussion on publishing, I did attend the Saturday business meeting, where I was pleased to hear editor-in-chief Kate van Orden’s appeal to the membership for submissions to the Journal of the American Musicological Society (since this is a blog limited to 1000 words or less, from here on JAMS). What van Orden suggested was not only the direction in which the journal is going but also the basic expectations for editorial practices.

Those of you who follow the blog have likely already figured out that by ‘basic expectations,’ I am hinting at my pet peeve of academic journals: a prompt response with submitted articles (as I write this, I am still awaiting comments on an article that were supposed to be sent in early September). All editors take note: van Orden stated that she has successfully implemented a three-month decision-making process – considering the length of many JAMS articles, an impressive achievement. I wish we could declare that to be some kind of disciplinary standard with punishments doled out to violators.

Van Orden also informed the audience of a new practice that we will be seeing in an upcoming issue: the colloquy. The purpose of this format is to allow multiple viewpoints on one of the most contentious yet venerable works of our profession: the Mozart* Requiem (* is being used here in the sense that it is for records considered tainted through drug use/cheating in professional sports – it’s not solely Mozart’s accomplishment). The colloquy is in response to an article in the Spring 2008 issue by Simon P. Keefe about the orchestration in the piece; scholars who believed they could contribute alternative viewpoints were urged to send in their opinions in a précis. At the meeting van Orden stated that she found this format to be an effective way of promoting scholarly debate. I think that the results of this process will be quite interesting to see and I agree that such a structure could be an invigorating alternative to conventional articles and for discussions about works or topics with significant impact for the field.

During her report to members of the society, van Orden also urged scholars to submit articles that engaged with the following topics: dance, anthropology, film studies, aesthetics, performance, and non-elite culture (and thanks to her for clarifying these in a follow-up email!). Undoubtedly, part of her reasoning for doing so is the more conservative reputation musicologists attribute to JAMS since it seems geared around conventional concerns in the discipline. Van Orden noted that she had asked for such topics before and received little to no response, with the implication being that the reason the articles are (for some) reactionary has more to do with the material that the journal is receiving than editorial choices. I decided to do a quick survey of the issues since Spring 2007, when van Orden took over as editor. I am assuming, of course, that the first issue or two was already decided by her predecessor – and I know that the statistical sample is small – but here are the results I got with regards to content:

15 total articles:

Nationality: 4 articles each for American and Italian (by job) composers; 3 on Hapsburg composers (it must be a statistical anomaly to have no Germans! Also, Dvořák was put into this category); 1 on French and Irish; 2 articles were not composer-based.

Era: 1 for Medieval; 3 for Renaissance; none for Baroque; 1 for Classical; 3 for 19th-century; 7 (!) for 20th-century

Grossly simplified topic of article: 7 about compositional/editorial practices; 5 about placing music within a larger context of cultural history; 1 about nationalism (which could arguably be part of cultural history); 1 about musical historiography (the term verismo); and 1 about music and literature (Samuel Beckett).

For the most part, then, JAMS has still favored a composer/works approach in its recent issues – an approach that is quite conventional. Indeed, most of the works under discussion belonged to the canon. I was struck by the number of articles that examined what I have broadly designated as compositional or editorial practices, which to me almost nullifies concerns that non-source-based musicology is gaining an upper hand. In fact, there is almost a balance between articles more concerned with cultural studies and those addressing more traditional questions.

Yet these issues as a whole demonstrate a more reactionary approach even though I suspect that the focus on twentieth-century repertoire may differ from a decade ago. However, I don’t think that there is any problem with this balance. JAMS is the primary voice for the field and it makes sense that it should concentrate on the issues that have predominated and are of general interest to the readership. JAMS articles tend to take previous scholarship and alter it to create a meaningful new approach (some might argue with how successful these approaches are, but that is a different topic). Perhaps part of the reason that newer topics, such as film studies or non-elite repertoire, have gained less traction is that their literature is not yet widely read by the field, making it difficult to change the general readership’s perspectives.

Since I still have almost fifty words, I would like to acknowledge that the Mozart* Requiem idea was not mine, but came from David Hahn, a student in my Baroque/Classical survey last year (soon after the Don Shula/Patriots* incident). Thank goodness I used the acronym for JAMS.

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