Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The other IMF

One of my other, nondissertation duties here is co-running the Interdisciplinary Music Forum. Most of the time, it's fairly small scale, things like organizing forums for students to share their work, inviting scholars to give talks, reading groups. But my favorite part is the two-day residency we hold with a scholar, and this year I was very very thrilled (as I think was everyone) to have Professor Philip Bohlman from Chicago.

Yesterday, he presented some new work and in conjunction with his highly-recommended book The Music of European Nationalism, opened up a discussion. His own work touched upon some fascinating bits including Jewish populations in Europe, parades, Herder's folk collections, and the Eurovision song contest. I know for me, it opened up some new windows of thought for my own dissertation. His distinction between national and nationalist musics strikes me as a rather important and undervalued one, and raises the question of how the national music is arrived at and how the idea of sameness is negotiated. I was also fond of the striking images Bohlman picks- the parade, the song contest, the Euro, the anthology. That's the art historian in me, which brings me to what Professor Bohlman's stressed at the very start: interdisciplinarity. The need for musicologists to engage with broader audiences, to realize that your dissertation isn't as narrow as you might think (actually he highly recommended writing your first book not on the dissertation). And Bohlman is a terrific role model for this. He is, after all, the author of one of the more foundational texts in my personal canon: Musicology as a Political Act. He also exposes the myth that there's some deep chasm in between historical and ethno musicology, between scholar and performer, between musicologist and anybody else. The only thing I'm not sure I'd want to emulate is his getting up before 7.

Oh, and the Norwegian winner of the Eurovision is adorable, the back up dancers are doing a halling and the song has been stuck in my head all day. See for yourself!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


While everyone else was out seeing the Star Trek movie, I was seeing something else at the local theater. But first, an admission: I love sports movies. I rarely watch sporting events, let alone follow them, but put a formula will-they-pull-off-the-victory screenplay in front of me, I will root tirelessly. So I can happily report that Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is nothing short of supremely entertaining. There's not much to the film: clips of the game interspersed with reminiscing interviews with the members of each team. But amongst the name dropping and bizarre facts comes little snatches of the political and social upheavals (or not) from that time. And not least, the game itself: WOW!

In other cinema news, I can recommend Adventureland and I Love You Man if they're still playing. The former (from the director of Superbad) is another entry in the coming-of-age-post-college film, dropping the bizarre humor of the Superbad and opting for sincerity. Sometimes, the earnestness and quirky atmosphere becomes sort of suffocating, but the lead actors sell it well enough. And I Love You Man is another study in male relationships, and whatever it lacks in insight, it makes up for in Paul Rudd's incredibly funny and appealing naturalism.

Finally, I'll put in a plug for Hunger, one of the grimmest and yet most strikingly beautiful films I've ever seen. It tells the story of Bobby Sands and the hunger strike in Northern Ireland but avoids any clear political lines or easy sympathies. Rather than a sweeping epic, chock-full of social meaning, we have a carefully detailed, claustrophobic, and ultimately immensely personal study of violence. If the first third is stomach-churning in its violent, shit-smearing realism, the final third is equally disturbing in its austerity as the hunger strike wears on. Dividing these bookends is a lengthy discussion of morals between prisoner and priest that strikes the perfect tone and weight, intense and vital, the center around which the swirling events are anchored. The movie is directed by the video artist Steve McQueen, and shows in its aestheticism and asceticism. Beauty has never been so viscerally haunting.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Spring Returns

In the past week, Ann Arbor has erupted into a verdant sea of nature, made twice as idyllic by the absence of tens of thousands of undergrads. And with that, I feel I should make my long-negligent return to the internet.

I have a lot to show for my absence. I wrote what will be my last academic class paper. This class, which I've probably raved about already, was fantastic. Ostensibly on film historiography, it presented a lot of theory and practice, dos and donts for any type of academic research. The class had 8 students, all of us with historiographic archival projects. Our penultimate and antepenultimate classes were devoted to workshopping our papers, and the last class to general musings about what else we'd like to learn, suggestions for the course, and good cheer- and it was held at a bar. This I approve. And I think the course helped me concretely, not to mention really pushed my research skills. The result, a 54 page paper. A paper I felt invested in, one I hope to convince my committee should be in my dissertation, and one that left me pondering what next. Writing and researching it was hell, hours and hours of microfilms, keeping track of over a hundred film reviews. But it's that energy, that feeling like your writing isn't just an exercise or the final step to dump whatever you've read but a process of continuing discovery.

Also, the end of the semester means grading. You know, I put on three Gene Kelly musicals, and just sat there grading essays until I finished. The exams are the sticking point here. I loved teaching, I loved the engagement with the students. We had plenty of great in-class discussions, and I felt like they not only grasped things, but could offer their own ideas and felt safe and encouraged to do so. That's a major victory. But the exams sink back to mediocrity- playing it safe by regurgitating ideas, convoluted and unengaged writing, and the occasional bizarre leap or interpretation that only builds my excitement for something daring but never delivered. And so I continue mulling over how to design an exam or paper that doesn't just challenge but encourages students to really engage personally. (Actually, I do like much of the exams and the papers, but it needs work as always).

But these things are past. It's spring, I can enjoy the weather. I had a lovely lunch today with three of my undergrad friends. And I'm making progress on my first chapter draft, which I started Monday and have found a nice, relaxed, productive pace to start the summer. Later there will be a conference, friends in distant cities, archival moments, and the usual. But for now, it's enough to enjoy that walk to the library through the green campus, and the satisfying walk back in the afternoon and put the computer and books away.