Interview with Dr. Mary Channen Caldwell
Mary Channen Caldwell is a medieval musicologist who has taught at Williams College and the University of Texas at Austin. As of Fall 2014, she is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Wichita State University. With a PhD in Music History and Theory from the University of Chicago in 2013, she has received fellowships, grants, and awards from different institutions including the American Musicology Society (Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Fellowship). In this conversation which took place during her academic appointment at the Butler School of Music, Revista Pterodáctilo talked with Dr. Caldwell about her academic field, the relationship between musicologists and performers, music institutions in US, the job market, the social relevance of musicology and academia, and her teaching experience.
– Most of the musicologist that I know started as performers, experiencing music through playing instruments. How did you decide to become a musicologist?
I was a pianist and a dancer when I was younger. When I was in high school, I pursued piano pretty seriously, as well as dance, but neither of those fields in terms of performance were really available to me for a number of reasons. But I decided to use music and in particular my piano experience as a way to transition into university. I auditioned and was accepted into the School of Music at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. However, my interest going there was actually to study musicology and ethnomusicology. The reason why is because doing piano in the town I grew up, my teacher was very interested in musicology as a discipline. He introduced me to historical sources, to the idea of thinking about music in historical and cultural way, and I was basically sold from the beginning on that idea. So as I was going through my undergraduate career, my focus was always on musicology, and on ethnomusicology, too, because of my interest in dance. As I progressed I started looking into graduate school; I got into the University of Chicago and it was appealing to me not only because the prestige of the school, but also because the of two people that I really wanted to work with, ethnomusicologist, Philip Bohlman, and musicologist, Anne Robertson; both are really just superb scholars and good people.
– Why a medievalist?
It started with my piano teacher back in high school who introduced me to Bach and what I thought was early music. When I got into my undergraduate program, I had a professor who taught the music history sequence and she began with Gregorian chant. She just had such a dynamic approach to it; I was completely hooked on the idea of this massive and really unfamiliar repertory of music. I thought it was fascinating on so many levels. And to me early music is still so inherently interdisciplinary; that’s what I like about it. You have to have such a great knowledge of so many different areas to be successful. You have to know languages, paleography, codicology, basic history; you have to be able to understand the rites of the church. You have to know how to do so many different things that is really amazingly complex and, as a result, amazingly interesting to me.
– I have heard that some musicologists have decided to specialize in specific areas because of experience that they have had listening to some music from a specific period.
It was actually Notre Dame Polyphony that was probably my favorite. I work mostly on music from about the eleventh century to about the sixteenth century, and mostly focus on the thirteenth century. For me the thirteenth century produced some of the most interesting sounding music. It’s the kind of music where, if I am teaching, most students initially take some time to warm up to it because it sounds so unusual and there are many weird harmonies. But I love it; I love the sound of thirteenth century music in general. For example, anything in early polyphony whether it’s organum duplum, motets, or conductus. I work a lot on the conductus repertory.
– In a recent presentation you talked about the role of orality and memory in medieval music. Can you talk about your research interests?
My interest on that subject mainly lies in how from something that is textual or on the page, we can better understand those things which were transmitted orally. Basically, we only have textual evidence from the Middle Ages. All those musical practices that were in performance only or that were transmitted from person to person and not written down; we don’t have that. I am really interested in how what we see on the page can reflect some of the underlying oral and memorial processes. One of the ways in which this happens is through the signaling of repetition. When you have a repeated text, you don’t need to write it out again; you can just signal it with a symbol or some design. Think about contemporary notation, we have exactly those same kinds of short cuts that rely on the performer knowing, not seeing. I find these kinds of question interesting. I have a pretty good understanding of how refrain works in the pre-modern period because of my work with the Latin refrain song. I am applying that to signals of repetition in the same period.
– Your former advisor, Anne Robertson, belongs to a growing group of musicologists that try to analyze and explain the music from a comprehensive approach. Do you feel that you have the same approach? What has changed with the previous generation?
I do think that I have a very similar approach. I was informed a lot by the work of the entire Faculty at the University of Chicago, who take a kind of culturally-situated approach to music. I do think that there has been, over the past thirty years, a movement away from an emphasis on the music as text to be studied systematically and in general a movement away in the United States from systematic kind of musicology towards more cultural musicology, or music and philosophy, or music and critical theory. Musicologists, I think, by their very nature, are interdisciplinary. As a field, we think about music in a lot of really interesting new ways because we are moving outside the confines of a very traditional Musikwissenschaft kind of approach of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
– Music departments, school of music, and conservatories are some of the music institutions that we have in the US, each one with a different emphasis. However, if a university includes performance, musicology, and theory programs, these sections seem to be completely different entities. I think that this is very dangerous for the development of music, because the musician of the twentieth century need as many skills as he or she can have. What do you think about it?
I think musicologists and musicians need one another. Both are better for a closer relationship and I think that it’s true on an institutional as well on a personal level. One of the dangers of being a musicologist who spends most of his or her time in a library is that you can become a little bit dissociated from the actual performance of music. You don’t have to be though; a lot of musicologists were performers initially and are still performers. I think it’s important for musicologists to maintain connections with the world of performance. It’s important to hear the music that we research being performed, to cultivate and understand a large range of repertories which means going to concerts that are not just in your specific sub discipline; and it’s important for our career as scholars to be very much part of the world of performance. For performers such connections are similarly valuable. First, because music never comes out of the vacuum and I think it’s really important for performers, especially young ones, to start to recognize that early and often. Music didn’t suddenly appear on the page of their Schirmer publication magically. It has a history, it has a context, and there is meaning behind the choices that were made and what they see on the page; and their interpretation also has meaning. Also, performers being more knowledgeable about music history and musicology means that they have access to a much wider range of materials and repertories.
– But, do you think performance professors encourage their student to take musicology seriously?
It’s probably very dependent on the institution. The priorities are obviously different for academic faculty as opposed to performance faculty. I want my students to be in the library working a certain number of hours a day, and the performance faculty want their students to be practicing a certain number of hours a day, so those two things don’t always match very well. The challenge of most places is to find a way to balance those two things. I think it’s a challenge and I don’t know whether it‘s possible to convince either side of the veracity of their opinion.
– Many musicologists complain about the difficult reality of finding jobs. However, I would ask: when was it easy to be a musicologist? Did somebody say that choosing the classical music as your field was not going to be difficult?
I think that you are right that the rhetoric around the job market probably stays fairly constant in the sense that there is always a lot of complaining. However, it’s never been the easiest career choice to be an academic and have a PhD. The difference these days is that far more PhDs are being granted than before, so there are simply more people who are in the field. I think it’s the responsible thing for professors when they have graduate students to let them know the realities of the job market as stands now. It has always been difficult, but if you work, do your research, continue teaching, continue making connections, that it’s possible to succeed. If you are interested in going into a PhD program in the humanities you have to understand that having a PhD does not equal having a job; but it never has. There is a lot of talk about this on the Chronicle of Higher Education. There is also talking about adjuncting and the difficulties people face as adjunct instructors.
– Why is it important for a university to have a music department? What does a music department provide to a university?
Music departments are important in the humanities as part of colleges of the arts, but also in entire universities, because music allows for different kinds of thinking and skills to develop than others field. Music involves listening, analysis, and working with different languages all together. That requires thinking outside of the box. It’s valuable for people not in music to take music classes because it forces them to think about something in an entirely new and different way. It helps create new frameworks to think critically.
– Can you explain your experience trying to excel in the field? Is it something that you understood from the beginning?
I have actually very vivid memory of one of my advisors in my undergraduate career telling me (I don’t think she probably meant it quite the way it sounded) “if you are not tired, you are not working hard enough.” I am probably misremembering in some way, but the sentiment stuck with me. It takes a lot of work to be good, a lot of work. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about an instrument or if you are talking about being good as a scholar. It’s time. There is no real magic involved in doing good work; it’s purely time. Malcom Gladwell has a book where he talks about success and describes how ten thousand hours of work go into being a professional. [Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008] I don’t know about the validity of his science, but I will say that the point is that you have to do something repeatedly, deliberately, and frequently in order to be successful. I think hard work is the basis of certainly everything I do. Most successful people will be those same people who are working after long hours, into the weekends; and that definitely is often me, although I do believe in a work life balance, so somehow I try to find the balance within that.
– Some musicologists insist that performance, analysis, historical and the cultural dimension of music must be always integrated. However, we have guitar festivals for guitarist, wind festivals for wind instruments, and musicology conferences only for musicologists. All of these events are necessary for the development of each discipline, but they have their own risk: too much specialization in one area of the music that divides the whole vision of the discipline. Do you agree with this?
I see exactly what you mean and I do think that musicology and other specialist fields run the risk of talking just to themselves and not to other people. That’s dangerous and the goal is to be as broadly relevant and speak to a wide audience. But there is a time and a place for both. There is a time and a place to be specialist and use your specialist knowledge and to talk to other specialists. That’s what some academic conferences do very well. A good comparison would be that what I would do at a conference is different than what I would do in a pre-concert lecture. Both of these are equally important; they just speak to different audiences. Sometimes musicologists maybe spend a little bit too much time speaking only to specialists and not enough time speaking to a broader audience. But a lot of people working now across the United States are doing a really good job of making their work accessible, trying to find ways of connecting with performers, with people in other disciplines, and people who don’t have specialist knowledge at all.
– Through the academia or through internet, newspapers, or other journals?
There is a lot to be said for writing for general audiences in venues other than academic journals. For example, writing for newsletters that are intended for more general audience, writing for blogs, writing for newspapers. All those things are really important and do a valuable service sharing the knowledge that we have as specialists with a broader population. People are interested in music and music history; we just need to stop making it so unapproachable.
– In order to be more relevant you need to do more writing for a broader public, not only for academic journals
Academics don’t typically make money for their writing anyway. Royalties for academic books are pretty low, unless you write a textbook, and we don’t get paid for academic journals. To my mind, writing for a variety of places and a variety of media is valuable and monetarily it makes no difference for us at all. The only place where it makes a difference for junior scholars is the value placed by their institution on writing for different kind of things. More value is placed on writing for a well-respected academic peer review journal than writing for a blog. Those are two different things in the mind of the university in terms of tenure portfolios and promotion.
This is a systematic thing, in the sense that as universities acknowledge different kinds of venues for writing, the situation will improve. For example, better understanding that open access journals are really a relevant and ideal place for people to put their work. As we move towards that goal, our scholarship as a whole would become more open, more accessible, and ultimately more relevant.
– So we need to put make our scholarship more open.
Publishing online allows us for immediate dialogue, and that’s really significant because when you published in an academic journals which are in print or even if it’s online and in print, it takes a long time to go from producing the text to publishing it; sometimes years. Whereas, if you are doing something that is strictly online, there’s maybe not a peer review process, you create an opportunity for immediate dialogue rather that having to wait two years to have a conversation
– What are the expectations do you have for students? What disappoints you?
I would say that most of my students in the past year that I’ve been working at Williams College and here, at the University of Texas at Austin, would say that I have very high expectations. I think I do and I have them because I know the students can reach them and can achieve the goals that I set for them. I expect them to not only be able to understand a fairly complex theoretical language about music, but I also expect them to synthetize a lot of information, connecting what they see on the page to what they’re hearing, to what they read in their textbook, to make links between and among all those things. What disappoints me is when students treat the class as “must be done” kind of thing, checking things off the list and not really engaging with it. The lack of engagement is something that I find disappointing because most students if they work will find something to engage with.
– Can you talk about the book project that you have?
My book project is for me kind of special because it draws in some of the ideas that I began to develop in my dissertation but because of the constrains of that form I didn’t really get a chance to explore as much as I like to, and this book is where I am really able to do so. I’m working on the idea of a calendar of song in pre-modern Europe, where song was intimately linked to moments in both the liturgical or religious year, and moments in the seasonal year, so spring, summer, autumn, etc. What I am interested in is how song actually helps to negotiate the relationship between these different temporal cycles. Whether, it’s a religious cycle where you go from Advent to Christmas, etc. or seasonal cycle, from harvest, winter, spring, and so on. I am going to be talking mostly about song, vocal music, and mostly looking at songs that have refrains but also other repertory too, both monophonic and polyphonic. I think it’s really exciting because I think we still actually have this kind of music that serves this purpose now if you think about Christmas carols that are both popular and religious. This is a major theme and most of my work is the attraction between the religious and the secular. You can just think about all the different kind of festivities that we still have that circulate around song, singing, and music.
– So the boundaries are not clear.
Yes, the boundaries were very blurry and I think they still are now in some ways.