SMT 2017

The Society for Music Theory’s 40th annual meeting is now behind us (program available here). I was pleased that the conference was held in Arlington, VA, a 30-minute drive away from my apartment in Northern Virginia.

At the risk of revealing just how many papers I did not see, (*cough*) below summarizes most of what I did at SMT. I’ve divided my experience into three categories:

  1. Indian classical music
  2. Mentorship and diversity
  3. Popular music

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IASPM 2017

I presented at my first International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference, the biennial international one, which was held this year in Kassel, Germany at the Kulturbahnhof—the former Hauptbahnhof (main train station) of Kassel, which is now converted into an arts center—a super cool venue. (Full conference program and abstracts available here.)

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Photo from http://www.kulturbahnhof-kassel.de

 

The program for this conference was huge, with something like six parallel sessions running at once. I tended to favor panels that were music-theory-ish, dealt with music technology, or dealt with gender.

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Setting goals for the summer

Summer is like New Year’s for academics: a time of reflection and goal-setting, both in work and in personal life.

2016–2017 was rewarding—I finished my dissertation and landed a tenure-track job—but intensely difficult. Neither of the New Year’s resolutions I made really worked out long-term.

I lost sight of writing 5 days a week while I was in the depths of interviewing and landing a job, although I got better about it when it came time to pushing to the finish line.

I meditated pretty consistently for a month or two, until interviewing and getting a job became extremely difficult and intense for me. This is when you need to meditate the most, or so the wisdom goes, but the last thing I wanted to do was sit around with my thoughts. Meditation is harder than it sounds.

Forgiveness being crucial, I want to try again, and set out some new Big Changes for myself before I get lost in the hubbub of the 2017–2018 schoolyear. Really committing to all of these would be impossible, so this is more of a brainstorming session. I will feel accomplished if I manage just one or two of these big changes.

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The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory

I was on the job market this past year for the first time. No one will be surprised to hear that it was quite arduous. I’m very pleased to say that I did win a job as an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Virginia (in the Washington, D.C. metro area).

Now that it’s all over, but while it’s still fresh in my mind, I compiled statistics from my search and personal advice, which I hope will help other aspiring theorists in their own searches. I’ll provide:

  • statistics on the season
  • what goes into the application process
  • how long it takes to get results
  • recommendations for surviving/thriving.

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What happens in the writing center

Instead of teaching college classes, for the fifth year of my fellowship, my assignment is to work in a college writing center. I have long told my students to take their papers to the writing center for help, without having actually gone myself. Now, I help students with their class essays in any subject, or sometimes I help them with graduate school application materials.

Working at the writing center gives me a new window into students’ perspectives on writing. Students tend to vent or otherwise open up to writing tutors—they feel safe with us. Every day, I listen to students who are trying their very hardest to succeed in school, but they are stretched incredibly thin and pulled in many different directions. The students I tutor are, almost always, not just going to school; they are working, they have children, they are immigrants who travel back to their home countries regularly. Students are also often facing immense barriers to their success: they are suffering from illnesses; they are broke; they are being evicted. Their teacher wants them to write a paper, though, so they are at the writing center asking for help.

So when I am scrolling through Twitter to take a break between tutoring students, and I come across a tweet like this…

…it’s hard not to get immediately incensed, on a personal level.

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New Years Resolutions for 2017

I’ll echo what everyone else is saying, that 2016 was a trying year for many reasons, including personal ones. Tied up with all that difficulty though is a lot of personal growth. Even though a lot of bad stuff happened in the past year, I have learned from every part of it.

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Amsterdam, October 3, 2016

I’m going to continue this lemons-into-lemonade kind of approach into 2017. To that end I’ve come up with a few resolutions for myself.

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What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”

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As you can see, this discussion recurs every year in /r/musictheory.

Vox.com has incurred the wrath of Twitter’s musicologists after posting a video focusing on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that suggested that iiø7 chords are what make it sound Christmassy. The video begins by stating the research question, “What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” They then proceed to discuss the harmonic content of the song and how the harmonies signify Christmassy-ness.

Vox’s declaration that iiø7 chords sound Christmassy irritated musicologists for many reasons, perhaps best summarized thusly:

In the Vox video and in all those reddit posts, and indeed in much of beginner music theory, there is an obsession with finding explanations in the harmonies, specifically, of a song. This is a reflection of the overall bias in music theory: we focus on teaching harmony most of the time. Curiosity about how harmony elicits emotions is natural in this context. It only becomes problematic when this discussion really leads to the exclusion of other music-analytical domains that are more relevant to the track’s signification—namely, timbre!

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