You wrote a dissertation on Bill Evans at a time when not many people took jazz seriously as a field of scholarship. What led you to that subject, and where do you see the field of jazz heading now?

My interest in jazz and Bill Evans emerged from a broader curiosity about musical improvisation.  The ability to "play by ear" always intrigued me since it is a talent I sorely lack.  As a graduate student I read Albert Lord's Singer of Tales--a study of oral epic poetry.  It seemed to me--as it has to many other scholars, including our colleague Bob Labaree--that there were possible parallels between the art that Lord described and the art of improvising music.  From his study of Serbo-Croatian bards--heirs to the Homeric tradition--Lord concluded that the ability to weave an epic tale on the spot was rooted in a system of formulas.  Like the systems of grammar and syntax that make it possible to carry on a spontaneous conversation, singers of tales rely on underlying structures to tell their stories.  Those structures, or "formulas"--which include patterns of meter, rhyme, and plot that don't concern us in day-to-day conversation--facilitate quick decision making.  There are a limited number of patterns, but an infinite variety of possible word combinations. Simply substitute one word for another depending on the thought to be expressed.

Lord stressed that the study of a performance-based art requires direct observation of a living tradition in order to monitor the circumstances of performance and the effects those circumstances have on the creative process.  Since jazz is one of the few remaining spheres in western musical practice where improvisation is still a vital presence, it was an obvious place to turn in seeking parallels.  Evans was a pianist whose music I admired, so he was an obvious choice of subject.

In the years since my dissertation, many scholarly studies have been published on jazz, from a variety of perspectives.   There are interesting books and articles on the history and sociology of jazz, as well as many insightful analyses of individual performances.  There has long been a tendency, however, to approach the analysis of jazz with theoretical tools and aesthetic assumptions developed in the study of the western written repertory.  That approach, I am happy to note, is increasingly called into question.  Scholars nowadays tend to pay attention to the contexts in which music is created in forming aesthetic and analytic judgments.

Most of the courses you teach now are on "common practice" music--music in the Enlightenment, Beethoven, etc.  Do you see areas of overlap between your work in this field and your work in jazz?

The principal overlap--and an important one for me--is the need, even in "common practice" repertories, to take the circumstances of a work's composition into account when we analyze the music and make decisions regarding its performance.  Without some knowledge of the purpose and meaning a piece had in its own day, one cannot draw reasonable conclusions regarding its interpretation.  As James Johnson wrote:  "Musical meaning does not exist objectively in the work … It resides in the particular moment of reception, one shaped by dominant aesthetic and social expectations that are themselves historically structured" (Listening in Paris:  A Cultural History, 2).

There are so many books and articles on music at the turn of the 19th century. Is there one work in this field that you could recommend--scholarship that you find particularly engaging or helpful?

It would be hard to cite one book. Viewing the picture from a single point of view raises the risk of an incomplete or distorted perspective on the subject.  Charles Rosen's penetrating insights in The Classical Style and in The Romantic Generation are, of course, indispensible to an understanding of the period.  But the short shrift he gives social-cultural history needs to be supplemented with something like Carl Dahlhaus's 19th-Century Music.  For a quick fix on the period, I like the chapters in Douglass Seaton's concise general history of music:  Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition, 3rd ed. (2010).  Alexander Ringer's opening essay in The Early Romantic Era (1990)--is also interesting and informative.  There is a rich list of suggested readings in A History of Western Music, 8th ed. (Norton, 2010), A55.

You have recently revived the survey course covering all of Western music history.  Why do you think that kind of course is valuable?


We dropped a required survey course from the curriculum several years ago, recognizing that students--especially undergraduates often encountering the subject for the first time--don't necessarily learn history from a forced and chronological march through events, names, titles, dates, and representative works.  There is too much to take in.  So we moved to a curriculum centered on courses covering shorter time spans and focused on topics more central than say Aquitanian polyphony to most students' immediate interests and needs.  We also increased the emphasis on learning skills.  Acquiring a grasp of music history is a life-long process, not something that can be accomplished in a few short semesters.  We are concerned that students graduate with the skills necessary to continue on their own initiative the historical study of music.

There is, however, a thrill at seeing something in its whole--in discovering the continuity of thought and practice that can be traced over the more than 1000-year history of western music.  Without that long-range view, one fails to see, for example, the extent to which we are still firmly rooted in "Romantic" attitudes and assumptions about music--despite the iconoclasm and modernisms of the 20th-century.  With a firm footing in knowledge of a restricted time period, it is easier to piece together the larger image.  One has points of reference.  That's why I counsel students to take a survey after they have taken some period and topics courses--though that is not a requirement.

The course also offers students more flexibility in earning the required credits in music history.  The full survey takes two semesters, but there is no obligation to take the full course.  One can opt for just the fall survey of "early music" (c. 850-1750) or the spring survey (mid-18th to the late 20th centuries).  The two semesters can be taken in either order, and since the class meets twice a week (Tu-Th) for one hour and forty minutes, each semester is worth 3 credits.

2011-08-08


THERE ARE NOTES BETWEEN NOTES, YOU KNOW. SARAH VAUGHAN