Guest Post by Zoe Lang: Today’s Musicological Toolbox

February 5, 2010 at 8:17 am

Recently, a veritable firestorm of activity has erupted on the AMS email list about the termination of the paleography position at King’s College London – in the wake of the economic crisis, it would seem that no system is immune from massive cuts.  Much of the general sentiment on the AMS list is contra this decision and I support that stance, but perhaps not for the same reasons as others.  The discussion has also taken several interesting turns, including comments about the value of scholarship that examines ‘subaltern’ studies.  To me, all of this talk resonates with what Don Randel once called the musicological toolbox (‘The Canons of the Musicological Toolbox,’ an article included in Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, edited by Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman, 1996) and I think that Randel’s ideas provide a great starting point for a reflection about the current state of our discipline.

Randel’s article identifies several skills long held to be paramount for the musicologist, such as the ability to decode older forms of notation and music analysis (mostly of pitch and form).  As he also observes, much of the repertory studied by musicologists were topics that fit well with these skills, growing out of the emphasis on Medieval and Renaissance music that marked the early years of our discipline in North America.  For this reason, topics that did not require such skills were omitted, at least at the time of Randel’s writing, including popular music and feminist approaches.  One of the most amazing realizations upon revisiting this 15-year old essay is how much things have changed in a relatively short time: topics such as feminist readings and popular repertoires have received the attention of scholars and even made appearances in such revered publications as the Journal of the American Musicological Society.  Another sign of change: for most musicology graduate students today, taking a notation class has become the exception rather than the rule.

However this shift has complicated matters because of the wealth of approaches now available.  Our discipline is hard pressed to agree on what key skills should be in a musicological toolbox.  I do feel that the concept still has merit and, most importantly, is a reminder for why we need to fight for positions such as the paleography chair.  Randel’s toolbox was based on the description provided in the manual for the Macintosh User Interface Toolbox, a program that allowed the user to construct application programs.  I would like to suggest that just as the concept of software is changing from a one-size-fits-all to a customized approach, the musicological toolbox should do the same.  Any comprehensive toolbox will have general tools that can be used in a variety of situations (such as a hammer) and more specialized ones for specific jobs (as someone who does not actually own a comprehensive toolbox, I don’t know what this would be.  Maybe one of those levels with a laser pointer).  The ideal way of training a musicologist, in my view, is to provide access to as many of these tools, general and specialist, as possible.  A student can then pursue whichever ones are the most engaging and combine these to provide new insights and approaches to the discipline.

This idea of a customized toolbox is precisely why, in my opinion, we need to fight tooth and nail for the paleography position to be kept.  Any scholar occupying this chair is one who has a great deal of specialized knowledge and is an expert in a very specific field.  As such, that person can offer insights and methodologies that may not be generally available.  In other words, this is a specialty tool, but that does not mean it should be discarded.  It may seem counterintuitive to argue that expertise in an obscure topic is reason enough to keep a position.  Yet even in the dreaded business model starting to permeate universities, this reason should be enough.  Students who are interested in studying this topic will be drawn to this school and choose it over others that offer a more general approach.  Thus you are generating business.  From the email posted by Derek Scott to the AMS list, it seems as though Great Britain is pushing the general approach to the detriment of specialization.  This touches on another growing problem that affects scholars regardless of discipline: the complete distrust of experts, a point also made by Bob Judd in his comments.  One need only tune into one of the more politically biased television shows to hear how ‘experts’ are leading us astray on topics ranging from the economy to global warming to education.  As scholars, we need to find a way of valuing expertise instead of trying to show how such research aids the general.

Another topic that surfaced on the list was perhaps a surprising one, considering that the conversation was about one of the most hallowed aspects of our discipline (notation): a questioning of the value that subaltern studies – and presumably other post-modern approaches – have for scholarship.  On the contrary, I see these as another invaluable part of the musicological toolbox.  Besides offering the potential for new insights in our field, they allow us to move beyond musicology and engage with scholars of other disciplines.  Think of this as a screwdriver with multiple, exchangeable heads.  When musicologists bemoan the fact that we have little contact with other disciplines, often the problem is viewed as a lack of common ground: they do not know how to talk about music and we do not know how to express our ideas to them without resorting to jargon.  The post-modern scholarly approaches that have gained currency across different fields provide a way of mediating these differences by offering a shared starting point.  Does everyone need such skills?  Of course not.  But those who wish to engage with scholars outside of musicology are advised to add this tool to their box.

Today’s Musicological Toolbox

Recently, a veritable firestorm of activity has erupted on the AMS email list about the termination of the paleography position at King’s College London – in the wake of the economic crisis, it would seem that no system is immune from massive cuts.  Much of the general sentiment on the AMS list is contra this decision and I support that stance, but perhaps not for the same reasons as others.  The discussion has also taken several interesting turns, including comments about the value of scholarship that examines ‘subaltern’ studies.  To me, all of this talk resonates with what Don Randel once called the musicological toolbox (‘The Canons of the Musicological Toolbox,’ an article included in Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, edited by Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman, 1996) and I think that Randel’s ideas provide a great starting point for a reflection about the current state of our discipline.

Randel’s article identifies several skills long held to be paramount for the musicologist, such as the ability to decode older forms of notation and music analysis (mostly of pitch and form).  As he also observes, much of the repertory studied by musicologists were topics that fit well with these skills, growing out of the emphasis on Medieval and Renaissance music that marked the early years of our discipline in North America.  For this reason, topics that did not require such skills were omitted, at least at the time of Randel’s writing, including popular music and feminist approaches.  One of the most amazing realizations upon revisiting this 15-year old essay is how much things have changed in a relatively short time: topics such as feminist readings and popular repertoires have received the attention of scholars and even made appearances in such revered publications as the Journal of the American Musicological Society.  Another sign of change: for most musicology graduate students today, taking a notation class has become the exception rather than the rule.

However this shift has complicated matters because of the wealth of approaches now available.  Our discipline is hard pressed to agree on what key skills should be in a musicological toolbox.  I do feel that the concept still has merit and, most importantly, is a reminder for why we need to fight for positions such as the paleography chair.  Randel’s toolbox was based on the description provided in the manual for the Macintosh User Interface Toolbox, a program that allowed the user to construct application programs.  I would like to suggest that just as the concept of software is changing from a one-size-fits-all to a customized approach, the musicological toolbox should do the same.  Any comprehensive toolbox will have general tools that can be used in a variety of situations (such as a hammer) and more specialized ones for specific jobs (as someone who does not actually own a comprehensive toolbox, I don’t know what this would be.  Maybe one of those levels with a laser pointer).  The ideal way of training a musicologist, in my view, is to provide access to as many of these tools, general and specialist, as possible.  A student can then pursue whichever ones are the most engaging and combine these to provide new insights and approaches to the discipline.

This idea of a customized toolbox is precisely why, in my opinion, we need to fight tooth and nail for the paleography position to be kept.  Any scholar occupying this chair is one who has a great deal of specialized knowledge and is an expert in a very specific field.  As such, that person can offer insights and methodologies that may not be generally available.  In other words, this is a specialty tool, but that does not mean it should be discarded.  It may seem counterintuitive to argue that expertise in an obscure topic is reason enough to keep a position.  Yet even in the dreaded business model starting to permeate universities, this reason should be enough.  Students who are interested in studying this topic will be drawn to this school and choose it over others that offer a more general approach.  Thus you are generating business.  From the email posted by Derek Scott to the AMS list, it seems as though Great Britain is pushing the general approach to the detriment of specialization.  This touches on another growing problem that affects scholars regardless of discipline: the complete distrust of experts, a point also made by Bob Judd in his comments.  One need only tune into one of the more politically biased television shows to hear how ‘experts’ are leading us astray on topics ranging from the economy to global warming to education.  As scholars, we need to find a way of valuing expertise instead of trying to show how such research aids the general.

Another topic that surfaced on the list was perhaps a surprising one, considering that the conversation was about one of the most hallowed aspects of our discipline (notation): a questioning of the value that subaltern studies – and presumably other post-modern approaches – have for scholarship.  On the contrary, I see these as another invaluable part of the musicological toolbox.  Besides offering the potential for new insights in our field, they allow us to move beyond musicology and engage with scholars of other disciplines.  Think of this as a screwdriver with multiple, exchangeable heads.  When musicologists bemoan the fact that we have little contact with other disciplines, often the problem is viewed as a lack of common ground: they do not know how to talk about music and we do not know how to express our ideas to them without resorting to jargon.  The post-modern scholarly approaches that have gained currency across different fields provide a way of mediating these differences by offering a shared starting point.  Does everyone need such skills?  Of course not.  But those who wish to engage with scholars outside of musicology are advised to add this tool to their box.

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Schubertiade Music Winter 2010 Catalog Guest Post by Lincoln Ballard: And Your Pope Can Sing


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