Sunday, May 20, 2007

Researching American Music

Over at Dial M for Musicology, the ever-thoughtful Phil Ford has a post that really threw me for a loop. There's a lot to engage with there; I admit that my immediate reaction was a little defensive, as in some ways he totally has my number. One of the fundamental approaches of my dissertation is looking at a lot of different sites of cultural production in one historical period, and drawing as many parallels as possible. I have some quibbles with his critique of that approach--I don't think there is something inherently wrong with a speculative approach to history, as sticking to just bare bones facts is exactly how certain historical narratives get reified. It's that old archive/repertoire distinction in performance studies: if you just stick to the written record, you're going to miss out on layer after layer of historical knowledge that is often dissenting from and resistant to normative historical narratives. Looking for connections between disparate events is one possible way to attack history from a different angle.

But overall, I definitely share his concern, and one of the main points of my own project is problematizing that annoying Ozzie and Harriet mythology of the fifties. Reflecting further, I think (hope!) what saves my own work from that trap is that I spend an almost excessive amount of time historicizing. I try to do my homework, in other words, and not just make lazy parallelisms. I spend time getting to know my historical subjects, in primary and archival sources. I try to let the music tell me what's going on, rather than assuming my 2007 self knows.

However, there is a structural problem in musicology that stands in the way of doing the kind of work I want to do. This leads me to the real substance of this post, which I'm afraid is going to be somewhat whiny, and most definitely connected to, shall we say, certain material realities of my own life as I await word on funding for next year!

What is with the lack of funding for research in American music? I know of only one source of funding that specifically targets American music, an award given by the Music Library Association. It's all of $2100, which of course would be an honor and a privilege to receive, but only goes so far. And is limited to one or two graduate students a year. And as far as I know, that's it.

So that's the problem: there is precious little money out there to encourage archival work in American music. If you are doing European music, well, sometimes it seems like people are tripping over themselves to give you money. The AMS has no less than three travel grants for research outside of the United States, the Bartlet, the Wolf, and the Powers grants. At my own University, there is a travel grant for research in Europe that my colleagues regularly get, plus a grant within my department for travel which is limited to music before 1950. Plus, there are a number of interdisciplinary centers at my school which give quite a bit a support to musicologists, but are limited in spirit if not name to non-American research: centers for medieval and renaissance studies, for 17th- and 18th-century studies, and so on. And then of course there are the various federal programs like the Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, the FLAS, and so on. There are no equivalents for these Eurocentric programs, in the AMS, at my university, or in my department.

Travel outside of the United States is more of expensive of course. It is easier for me to self-fund my research, as I did this last fall when I put a trip to Chicago on my credit card. I had been desperately needing to visit the John Cage papers at Northwestern for years, had never been able to get any funding to do so, and finally just had to suck it up so that I could get my chapter written. But you know, it's not actually that much cheaper. The expense of spending a month looking at archives in, say, New York City is not that different than the expense of a month in Paris. In addition, fellowships are not just about funding; as my friend Sushi PJs pointed out, they also lend your project crucial legitimation.

But most importantly, what kind of message does this send about doing work on American music? It is a loud and clear message from the world of musicology that archival work on American music, and I would argue by extension historical work, is not important or necessary.

And that, my friends, sucks.


Rebecca said...

Methinks this should be crossposted to the SAM mailing list...or brought to SAM's attention (if you haven't already). I also self-funded my archival research, so I know of what you speak.

I'm a member of Americans for the Arts and one of the things I'm trying to do is to get them more involved in academic pursuits. I think there is a mythology that funding is readily available for every research endeavor in academia. And while, yes, one COULD apply to the NEA for a grant, the reality of obtaining one is so small.

How about a Panel/roundtable at SAM next year? I'm serious.

BBound said...

You're right, SAM is probably best positioned to do something about this. Not that I blame them for not doing much yet, as I know they are very strapped for cash--a fact which probably has its roots in the same issue!

I'm on the Student Forum committee, so maybe we could organize a workshop or something? If nothing else, it could be nice to have a space to vent!

sushipjs said...

You are absolutely right about the international priorities of travel funding in general. It isn't just a music or a musicology issue. Have you ever met an Ethnomusicologist who specializes in American music? They are even worse off because they often have legitimation problems in their own discipline on top of the funding issues. ("You did your field work in Washington?!") I could go further into it, but then I'd probably get myself into trouble.

I know that people in American Studies face fierce competition for funding. In general, the whole situation in the humanities and social sciences reeks of either envy for Europe or fantasies about the Orient. It's gross.

And about that DialM entry, I've been puzzling over it myself. I'll probably post a response of some sort in the coming days.

Caroline said...

I had a nice conversation with Phil Ford about this matter while in Seattle. I recommended your work, and I was too tipsy to remember much else!

One more small point. There is a big cluster of schools on the east coast near many of these archival resources.

Violet Vixen said...

Wow. I'm kinda offended by the Dial M post, even though at the end he's suggesting that the solution is really exactly what my project is - how we've inherited and applied ideas from the '50s. Still. Anyway, there's very little funding in researching American theater period, but selling a project that's post-'50s and U.S. is pretty much impossible. In both cases it's considered too local. I know the reification of Europe and certain canons in musicology is much more prevalent, but travelling to do U.S. research in most places seems extremely difficult. Maybe some abstract 'they' believes that you should always only right about the area you go to school in? I know that most theater scholars make annual pilgrimages to New York, on their own dimes of course. At least in music there's a little more archive readily available in more diverse places.