Conference Review: AMS/SEM/SMT Big Gathering in the Big Easy, 2012

Amanda Hsieh writes about her experience as a first-time delegate at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting, this year held in downtown New Orleans, 1-4 November. As a (very) junior graduate student, she is giddy to find that the AMS isn’t as scary as she has anticipated: a little nerve-wracking, yes – but also a fun and mindfully thought-provoking experience.

There was a lot of excitement, a lot of nerves, and yes, and a lot of people. This year’s annual meeting of the American Musicological Society was a four-day triple bill held jointly with the Society for Music Theory and the Society for Ethnomusicology. And this large AMS/SEM/SMT gathering took a small section of the Big Easy in the American South by surprise as hundreds (or thousands?) of established academics, graduate students, and their travel companions took over two nearby hotels in the city’s Central Business District for the duration of the Societies’ joint meeting.

As someone who finds fin-de-siècle Vienna an infinitely rich period of cultural history, I particularly enjoyed Clara Latham’s presentation ‘The Impact of Sound and Voice on the Invention of Psychoanalysis’ and a panel session entitled ‘Apocalyptic Visions and Regressive Modernism: Pan-German Opera beyond the Fin-de-siècle’, chaired by Walter Frisch and with papers from Alexandra Monchick, Sherry Lee, Peter Franklin, Christopher Hailey, and Andrew Mead (read by Monchick because of Sandy).

I thought Latham’s exploration of language/voice and their critical roles in the shaping of our identity and affect is fascinating, and it is all the more refreshing to hear Freud being discussed with a vivid understanding of the primary sources. I’m biased because Freud is one of my cultural icons, but I often find that Freud is unjustifiably misplaced in the popular conscious because he is more frequently known through someone and/or something else. This wasn’t the case with Latham at all. However, I reluctantly regret that the limited time frame didn’t allow her to discuss the issue of gender further in relation to Freud’s subjects, which Latham always referred to as ‘her’ albeit justifiably so.

And the panel session, made up of some of my musicological idols, was both beautifully decentring and quietly rebellious in the way that it concentrated on the lesser canonical composers of the fin-de-siècle Vienna: Franz Schreker, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Hans Pfitzner. I found the dialogue on the notion of irony immensely fruitful, especially when – as Frisch commented – it is often all too easy to forget that German Romanticism (yes, with a big capital R!) of the long nineteenth century is shot through with irony and it isn’t simply a modern invention. The image of a bourgeois composer as a political revolutionary is in itself ironic. For me, the session was intellectually intense, and it all seemed appropriately melodramatic when the sky of New Orleans turned dark and dropped its heavy rain. Yet, there was also light-hearted laughter – as many of the sessions I attended were; indeed, it was difficult to suppress a giggle when we discovered that Franklin named his PowerPoint presentation ‘New Orleans Apocalypse’ in the midst of a technical failure. In light of his position paper’s generous discussion on catastrophic climaxes in Schreker as mass culture spectacles in Hollywood, the electronic file’s title is, of course, fittingly ironic.

The late-night Music and Philosophy Study Group (MPSG) Session resulted in a rewarding debate too. Led by Tamara Levitz, Brian Kane et al., critical questions were asked in regard to where music, philosophy, and the intersection of the two might be in the future: Is music providing a way for philosophy? Should we still do ontology if it is too abstract? And have we already passed the ‘golden era’ for music and philosophy with the kind of ‘critical agency’ that inter-/post-war Adorno demanded and could afford? Particularly interesting I thought was that while Levitz called for pluralistic voices (YouTube philosophy!) and a demolition of big (male) idols, as a former student of Carl Dahlhaus, she asked concurrently: ‘where is the canon?’ – Where are Kant, Hegel, and Adorno today? Perhaps the people don’t matter as much anymore; rather, the questions do.

And when the Chair of RMA’s MPSG Tom McAuley raised the issue of the (often unhealthy) tension between the analytical camp and its continental counterpart, Levitz insightfully suggested: while the analytical philosophers often like to fire their gun at the continental school’s archaic attitude towards the issue of gender (or the lack thereof), the disciplinary makeup of the analytical school is hypocritically male-dominated (a reality also reflected in critical theory). The numbers simply don’t add up.

I felt both thirsty and hungry by the end of the MPSG session, and I craved caffeine (no free coffee in this conference!). It was almost as if in a perverted sense that our bodies didn’t matter and only our minds did; we grudgingly carried our less than perfect bodies around. Yet music (or musicking, to borrow Christopher Small’s term) leads us to embody and act; and if I dare to say, it is also a kind of philosophizing that can inspire social integrity that philosophical study alone may not necessarily do as well. And in a room full of young souls, giddy and hopeful, it almost felt as if we could somehow fix the problems we faced everyday if only, we were armed adequately with both music and philosophy. It’s far-fetched to say that a group of academically minded people (and likely reluctant gym-goers) are warriors of the world perhaps, but I went back to my temporary shelter that night dizzy from a sense of optimism.

There was a lot of serious thinking, but there was also a lot of fun. Many people busied themselves with catching up with old friends that they only get to see once a year at AMS meetings. And it has also often been a really interesting experience for me to piece together the faces and the names – one of my favourites must have been Susan McClary. Yes, I am a fan. McClary is very small and soft-spoken. And I know my meeting with her is partially informed by my admiration for her work: I think she carries the world around her with a remarkably gracious mannerism. She told me that I must not give up in believing what I think is just and right, and I said my goodbyes to her with a big, warm heart.

Now happily home and back to work amid the over-sentimental English drizzle, I find myself lightheaded from the jetlag and missing New Orleans. I’ll remember the masquerade on Bourbon Street on Halloween night and, as a part-time tourist, the no-nonsense jazz show in the historically famous Preservation Hall. And as a music student, I’m almost ashamed to admit, my Preservation Hall experience was my first to witness a trombone played with technically controlled mutes and, with so much groove, live.

One comment

  1. This conference seems to have been both draining and entertaining. The sections on philosophy – as well as the trombone playing – sound very productive, but the references to gender politics fail to inspire. Simply describing something as ‘male’ should is not a reasonably criticism, and Susan McClary’s work – at a brief glance – seems sexist towards men [I shall read more].

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