A. Kori Hill
There are SO many great music scholars out there. So many folks that make it easy for us to access information on music and its history. That’s the cool thing about music scholarship: it doesn’t stay the same. Because there’s always something new to uncover or reinvestigate.
Take Dr. Mark Clague. He’s a musicologist at the University of Michigan. Dr. Clague has written several books and articles on American music and edited the memoirs of the US Navy’s first Black bandleader, Alton Augustus Adams, Sr. He’s also helped fix something important. You know George Gershwin’s An American in Paris? How it has taxi horns in the percussion section? Turns out that for YEARS, orchestras were tuning those horns wrong. How could this happen?!?!?
Well, Gershwin, like Beethoven (and many other composers), didn’t have the neatest handwriting. And since Gershwin’s sudden death in 1937, there hasn’t been a lot of scholarly editing of his work. Until Dr. Clague came along. He was hired by Gershwin’s grandnephew Todd and The Gershwin Initiative to oversee the creation of critical editions of Gershwin’s music. As he started work on a critical edition of An American in Paris, Dr. Clague noticed that what was on the page was not what he heard on recordings. Thanks to his work and corrections, we’ll now hear the horns tuned as Gershwin intended.
Another cool thing about music scholarship is that sometimes you–the scholar–need to be part of the research too. That’s what Dr. Deborah Wong realized. She’s an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Riverside. And in her book on Japanese American taiko, Louder and Faster, she didn’t just interview taiko players; record performances; and research the history of tradition for more than 10+ years. She was also a taiko player! So, she also interviewed herself, engaging critically with her personal reflections which is a scholarly practice called “autoethnography.”
There are some scholars who don’t think autoethnography is “rigorous.” But Dr. Wong’s use of autoethnography adds another layer to her study of the complexity, the contradictions, the difficulty, and the personal and communal importance of performing taiko. How can you understand a tradition made by people without knowing the people? How can you understand a tradition without considering how you fit within it all as a performer yourself? Since Dr. Wong embraces the tools she needs to answer these questions, she shows us that some of the best music scholarship embraces the human experience.