Roundtable | Music and the Public Sphere, “Introduction,” by Philip Gentry

Music and the Public Sphere

Philip Gentry

This special roundtable consists of a selection of papers originally delivered at a conference sponsored by Echo in late spring of 2006. The theme was “Music and the Public Sphere,” and the call for papers asked for essays which addressed any aspect of the relationship between music, writing about music, and the public sphere:It has often been noticed that discourse by and about public intellectuals in the post-war era has been dominated by literary critics and social scientists. Those who write about music—critics, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and many others—have been much more reticent to participate in broader debates within the public sphere. The relegation of timely and current discourse about music to the realm of journalism has in many ways aided this split, even as the decline of such journalism in the nation’s press has threatened to destroy such discourse altogether. Does music, and writing about music, matter to affairs of state? To cultural politics? To public policy? 

The two-day conference featured fourteen speakers from across the United States, and, despite the somewhat U.S.-centric phrasing of the call for papers, from Korea, Brazil, and Canada. The first night of the conference featured joint keynote addresses from two distinguished members of the University of California system: Jann Pasler, Professor of Music at the University of California at San Diego, and Anthony Seeger, Professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. As the former director of Smithsonian Folkways Records, and a longtime participant in governmental debates about matters both political and musical, Seeger was able to make a powerful claim for the importance of music scholars maintaining a presence in matters of state. Pasler, on the other hand, took a historical approach to music in the public sphere. Drawing upon her ongoing research on Third Republic France, Pasler showed the crucial role of music in the creation of a new French state, from colonialism to gender politics.

The two keynote speeches in certain respects represented a distinction that many of the other talks aligned themselves with: interacting with the public sphere could either mean a historical description and analysis of such interactions, or an intervention with such issues at the present moment. Each approach obviously draws upon the other; this is not to say that history is not a form of activism. But the historical/contemporary divide did mark a crucial difference in some presentations. Marc Perlman, for instance, an ethnomusicologist at Brown University, delivered a paper describing the work of activists fighting against restrictive and outdated copyright law. Although Perlman did not present himself as a member of these groups, it was easy to see that his own intellectual work gave the movement not just academic legitimation, but the perspective and critical insight which scholarly inquiry can provide to contemporary politics. Later in the day, Rika Asai, a doctoral student at Indiana University, gave a historical overview of the use of music in radio programming of the 1930s. It’s easy to see how the kind of work being done by Asai and other historians of the mass media is crucial for Perlman’s philosophical formulation of the nature of such media in the new millennium.

One panel where historical and contemporary approaches came together in a surprisingly productive manner was a session titled “Class, Access, and Musical Literacy,” and chaired by Zarah Ersoff. At first glance, the topics had little to do with one another: Melanie Lowe, a musicologist at Vanderbilt University, discussed the construction of the bourgeois audience as imagined in Haydn’s late symphonies. Sanna Pederson, a musicologist at the University of Oklahoma, leapt forward to the beginnings of professional musicology in the twentieth century, and the role of mass culture in early visions for what musicology might someday do. Finally, Patrick Camangian, a doctoral student in education at UCLA, concluded the panel with a presentation on his work with students at public high schools in Los Angeles. Recognizing the important influence of hip-hop on his students’ daily lives, he has resolved to teach them “critical listening,” directly engaging them with the cultural power possessed by popular music.

Part of the impetus for this conference came from Echo‘s rather unique status within musicological publishing. We were not the first online journal in musicology, and we certainly were not the last. However, when Echo was founded in 1998, the launch of a new peer-reviewed journal in an online format caused a small flurry of excitement. Academia’s newspaper of record, The Chronicle of Higher Educationprofiled the occasion. The fact that we were published online was not news; the Journal of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music had been doing so since 1995, and Music Theory Online began life (in plain text format, no less!) online in 1993. What was new about Echo at the time was the attempt to integrate multimedia into scholarly discourse. By doing so, there was a hope that scholars from other disciplines, especially those not trained in music notation, could contribute to the conversation. As the first Editor-in-Chief, Jacqueline Warwick, told the Chronicle, the idea was to be “music-centered” rather than “musicological.” Over the years, Echo has become perhaps a little more musicological than originally hoped, in that most of our contributors come from within the discipline of musicology. At the same time, technological developments in recent years – support for online musical examples attached to traditionally printed journals and monographs, and even the popularization of PowerPoint at meetings of the American Musicological Society – means that the discipline has come to appreciate the benefits of, and sometimes outright need for, discourse beyond the printed page.

At the same time that new technologies have expanded the techniques of musicology, other new technologies show the promise to more fundamentally change the nature of scholarship. One consequence of online publishing is that unlike traditional print-based scholarship that remains locked in libraries or in expensive databases, an online journal is freely available to the world. Here’s a fact that may or may not be startling: many, many more people in the world have read Echo than The Journal of the American Musicological Society. Granted, a great deal of our readership, at least according to server statistics, is the result of Google searches on topics such as Eminem, or the South Park musical. And it is unlikely that an article published in Echo is going to win the Alfred Einsten award anytime soon; popularity in the public sphere does not equal prestige in the academic. Which is fine, of course, but it is an unusual development of the past decade that a teenager with a faint interest in a topic can suddenly have the resources to explore that topic at a fairly sophisticated level. And not just teenagers; a graduate student looking to know the bibliography of a given topic no longer needs to consult footnotes or faculty members. He or she can simply do a search in JSTOR or Project Muse and instantly be given a century’s worth of journal articles on any subject. And thanks to a variety of initiatives, both corporate and academic, a growing number of books are now available online. Google’s exploits within this domain are well-known, but savvy students have known for several years now that Amazon’s “search within a book” function could make last-minute trips to the library unnecessary. In short, there is now a tremendous amount of access to musicological scholarship. Much of it still lies in restricted areas of the internet, but if trends continue, it seems likely that more and more people will have access to both scholarship and the materials needed to perform scholarship of their own.

Most discussions of music and the public sphere flow in one direction: academic interventions in the world outside of the academy. As with the conference, these interventions tend to operate either historically or contemporaneously, although both with an eye to the future. In this roundtable, for instance, Sanna Pederson discusses the role of musicologists in music education at the turn of the last century. Similarly, Holley Replogle-Wong looks at how nationalist sentiment was created in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy. Or on the other hand, a discussion of music and the public sphere might consist of a new intervention, as in James Deaville’s contribution, which uses a musicological lens to examine the build-up to war in Iraq, presumably in hopes of building up the critical faculties of future viewers of television news. Ivan Fontanari ethnographically describes a complicated relationship between music and social life in working class Brazil, using insights from anthropology to appreciate the intellectual agency of his research subjects; again, presumably in hopes that we will do likewise.

In the future, however, we’ll want to keep open the possibility that scholarship will not always flow in this direction.With scholarly discourse no longer safely tucked away in printed journals, and the resources of research libraries on display for all the world to see, how will the public sphere change musicology? In examining the state of the relationship between academic musicology and the public sphere, this conference and roundtable hopes to provide the groundwork for such explorations.

The conference “Music and the Public Sphere” was organized by the editorial board of Echo, coordinated by Philip Gentry, Jessica Bissett, and Julianne Lindberg. The session chairs were Kariann Goldschmitt, Zarah Ersoff, Kelsey Cowger, and Graham Raulerson. Funding was provided by the UCLA Graduate Students Association and the Department of Musicology. Special thanks to Professors Robert Walser and Raymond Knapp for their support of the project.