June 2017 Discussion of the Month

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For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.” Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/Read.ecc.asp This month’s article from the above collection is by Professor Norma Coates and is the 15th installment from Ecclectica to be featured on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month.

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Observations From a Liminal Space

Norma Coates, University of Western Ontario

It feels strange for me to write about the future of university music studies in Canada. I am American by birth and have been in Canada for exactly one year. Although my home department is the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario, I’m a joint appointment with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. My PhD, in fact, is in Media and Cultural Studies. I am neither a musician nor a musicologist. Further (and I hope that this does not add insult to injury), my precise area of research and expertise is popular music.

At the risk of sounding egotistical (which is certainly not my intent) and following the editor’s injunction to address this issue provocatively, I want to suggest that my position as described above, represents one of the possible futures for university music departments in Canada and elsewhere. Even given my newness to the country and to a music faculty, I sense that this is a very exciting yet very challenging and a bit fraught time for music studies in Canadian universities. As a popular music scholar, I perceive that my discipline has roiled traditional music departments and conservatories. A related trend is the increased embrace of, or at least lip service to, interdisciplinarity by university administrators.

Part of the reason I am here is because this Fall our music faculty is admitting its first class of students to a new BA program in Popular Music. As I understand it, this is the culmination of a several-year process that was at the same time resisted by some in the department and supported by others. This is consistent with what I have heard about attempts to integrate popular music courses into other music departments in Canada. Resistance is understandable, especially by faculties and conservatories that have made and stake their reputations on art music. There are fears that the inclusion of popular music in the curricula will lead to the exclusion of art music, or that a turn toward popular music represents a triumph of instrumentality over “aesthetics”. At the same time, it is becoming clear that our students’ overall knowledge of how music, any music, signifies and works affectively in everyday life and history is enhanced by the study of the cultural contexts in which music of all types is produced, used, and received. At Western, our BA in Popular Music will include courses on the cultural impact and history of popular music alongside those on musical style and genre. Insights gleaned from the cultural and historical study of popular music can be applied by enterprising students to music across centuries, hierarchies, and genres. Our future music educators, especially at the primary and secondary levels, will be teaching students who encounter popular music across an unprecedented range of media from their earliest childhood. They need to be prepared accordingly.

We are also building expertise in popular music studies across two faculties, the Faculty of Music and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. Between these two faculties we will have six faculty members whose research and teaching is solely or partially in popular music. Our collective expertise spans style, performance, history, gender studies, technology, political economy, recording, and jazz (and I’m sure that I’m leaving out something major). This range of popular music expertise provides stimulating possibilities for graduate student research and development during a time when the administration is making that a priority.

The interdisciplinarity of Western’s popular music faculty and offerings, and of popular music studies in general, leads to an important question: what is the role of the music department in the disciplinary advancement of popular music studies in Canada? Popular music scholarship takes place in several departments, including musicology, ethnomusicology, media studies, communication, English, and sociology (among others) and employs diverse methodologies. Although several disciplines contribute to popular music studies, the field runs the risk of turning into “two solitudes” (a phrase I’ve learned since my arrival in Canada), comprised roughly of the “musicological” and the “cultural.” That is, the field shows signs of becoming multidisciplinary, rather than interdisciplinary. If panel composition and/or attendance or presence at conferences can be read as indicative of trends in the field (and I submit that they can), then it appears that this divide may be taking hold in the discipline as it establishes itself. That’s not to say that there are not scholars who combine musicological analysis and cultural theory with wonderful results. In fact, Canadian scholars are setting the pace here; the work of Susan Fast and Christina Baade at McMaster, along with that of Kip Pegley at Queen’s, is exemplary in this respect. Music departments can have an enormous impact in shaping the future of popular music studies, but cannot do so where debates about musical taste and value are bracketed.

It is also important that departments and administrators conceive of courses in popular music history and culture as more than giant survey courses, providing electives for other majors and departments. With the right instructor, such courses can be and are quite rigorous. In other circumstances, these surveys run the risk of being viewed as “bird courses”. Popular music needs to be acknowledged as a field worthy of smaller classes and in-depth analysis as it develops in rigor and methodology.

Another fear is that popular music will drain resources from art music. That fear is valid yet addressable. Integration of popular music into the music curriculum will require more resources, especially where popular music is recognized as inclusive of musics beyond white, Anglo-American forms. This is crucial as the industry, popular music, and the world our students will enter upon graduation becomes more interconnected and interdependent. A solution to the resource issue is to forge links with other departments: that is, to capitalize upon the fact that research in popular music is performed in several disciplines. Such connections can be formalized, via cross-appointments or the creation of interdisciplinary centres and courses open to students interested in popular music within attached disciplines. Music departments can and should lead the way in these endeavors.

Interdisciplinary connections can also be made within music faculties. As previously mentioned, some knowledge of the history and culture of popular music, and its affective power and role in the lives and media consumption of primary and secondary school youth is increasingly important for future music educators at that level. Fruitful connections can be made between popular music and every other division within music departments.

Ultimately, I believe that this all comes down to what is best for our students: to what they will require in order to venture out into the world beyond the conservatory or department. I would wager that our students don’t care too much about maintaining strict divisions between art and popular music, theory versus musicology, and the many other perceived or real divisions within music faculties. (Discussion of those issues could make a great course or seminar.) Through the study of the history and cultural resonance of popular music, students can learn about culture, history, and how and why contemporary societies operate as they do. The addition of popular music courses beyond the token survey will provide students with breadth and depth across the range of musical cultures, styles, and “aesthetics”. This knowledge will help make them thinkers as well as musical practitioners, educators, and aficionados.

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