15 Minutes with … the Dent Medallist (Interview with Alexander Rehding)


Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners (see here and here), we interviewed the 2014 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Alexander Rehding (Harvard University), shortly before he gave he gave his keynote lecture on the second day of the RMA’s 2015 Annual Conference at the University of Birmingham. Among other things, we asked Professor Rehding about the idea of ‘impact’, the differences between UK and US academia, which composers he would bring back from the dead, and his predictions for the future of musicology.

Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University.




How important is interdisciplinarity to your research and how important do you think it is generally in academia?

That is a hard question and it is the perennial question. We use interdisciplinarity so often that it is hard to know exactly what is meant by it. I am really interested in music and everything else follows on from that. Since different people have used music in very different contexts, I think the interdisciplinarity is always a function of the specific subject I study. I am going to talk about that a little bit in the talk this evening [the Dent Medal lecture]. I have been doing quite a lot of work on the Pythagorean tradition. If you look at it from our present perspective, it is radically interdisciplinary in ways that are mind blowing, and to the extent that you think ‘this is crazy!’ But they did not think of it as interdisciplinary, so from that perspective, ‘yes and no’: interdisciplinarity plays a huge role and it does not play any role at all. It ends up being a question of how you define the discipline and that which is between disciplines.

What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of your job?

The obvious answer is the students – that is the favourite part. It is really very exciting to be working with a bunch of people who have great enthusiasm, who have great ideas and to work on materials with them that I would, or sometimes would not, have the opportunity to be working on. The least favourite aspect of the job: there is a lot of admin!

Have you had any mentors or people who have inspired you during your career so far?

Yes. Many! I was very inspired by my supervisor, John Deathridge. I learnt many things from him. Also, my peers. I think you learn more from the people you study with than from almost anyone else. The university library tearoom was probably the most important place of learning. I learnt a lot from people whom I just casually talked to. Two other people who were very important to me were Scott Burnham and Brian Hyer; I worked with them a lot on an informal level while I was still working on my dissertation.

What is the best piece of career advice you have ever been given and what advice would you give to doctoral students now, in terms of advancing their own career?

It would be great to be come up with a snappy, inspirational quote here, such as ‘follow your dreams’ or ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’! I think it is hard now, it is probably harder than it was twenty years ago. The climate is very different and the expectations are quite different. Also, there was a certain time lag from when you started a project and when you completed it: my dissertation was on Hugo Riemann – when I started everybody asked ‘who?’ – and, through forces beyond my control, the name became much more famous and much more widely known by the time I had finished. That was very fortunate; it can go either way. In some ways, when you choose a dissertation project, you make a commitment: you will for a long time – I hesitate to say always – but for a long time you will be associated with your dissertation topic. Maybe if I were to formulate it as a piece of advice, it would be ‘choose a dissertation topic that you think you will be able to live with for a long time’.

If you were not a musicologist or an academic, are there any other avenues that you might have pursued?

I came to music as a trombonist, and I was pretty serious about it, but I knew at a fairly early age that I did not want to be a professional trombonist because that means counting hundreds of rest most of the time! I knew early on that I wanted to do something with music but not an active performing career. So musicology came pretty naturally. I have a lot of dentists in my family – my uncle and my father were both dentists – so I think there was a certain expectation that I would take up the trade. Before I went to university, I did national service and I was a conscientious objector in Germany, so I followed the community service route. I worked as a nurse’s assistant. I had a sense, then, of that line of work [medical] and I admire a lot people who work in that field, but I realised it was not for me, mainly because I found it very hard to switch off and go back home – that is probably the obsessive part of my personality. So I ruled out anything medical fairly early on, but I guess that would have been my alternative.

Who from the world of music would you bring back from the dead and what would you ask them?

A composer? [Anyone!]. Too many! I would like to meet Liszt; he is a fascinating person and I would just like to chat to him. I would also like to meet Wagner – who wouldn’t?! – just for kicks. I imagine that he was probably a deeply unpleasant person, but fairly charismatic. [What would you ask him?] ‘Judaism in Music – seriously?!’

In terms of obtaining postdoctoral positions and jobs later on in academia, how important is who you know, relative to what you know?

You could answer that in many different ways. There is a question of ‘fit’. I think that is probably really important in any kind of application. The same kind of application might rise to the top in one institution, but may not even make the first cut in another just because it is a different kind of institution with different kinds of interests. Often it is not so much a question of the quality of the application – though that does play some role – but rather how well it fits in with the interests of the institution. It has a feedback effect. I did a string of postdocs, and I found that my work changed with whichever institution I was at, to the extent that you could relate specific projects with specific institutions. I am pretty sure that those projects would not have happened if I had not been at those places. The ‘Monumentality’ project is the direct result of my work at Pennsylvania, and my interest in sound media is really based on one very charismatic and enthusiastic professor in the German department at Princeton, Tom Levin, who really opened my eyes to a field which I was largely unaware of. So yes, it is what you know, but it also what you are led to find out.

What arguments would you use to defend musicology in the light of recent budget cuts to the arts?

That is an interesting question but it is also a really hard one. The line that is taken very often is that teaching music is good for brain development, and I can see how that is appealing to people who do not really care about music but who care about everything else that you can do through music, and maybe that is the most practical and most successful tack to take in this particular climate. I would really like a more full-throated defence of what we do for its own sake, but the bottom line is that we do not want funding cuts and the best argument is the one that convinces them.

But by making music almost secondary to other ‘more important’ things, does that reinforce a sense that music is inferior to those other areas?

Yes, exactly. There is a certain arbitrariness to music in that line of argument; that’s my concern. In the whole debate about defending the humanities, one thing that does crop up more than it did two or three years ago is the idea that it is actually really good to learn about specific subjects that are not about earning money because they will help you to approach questions from a diversity of angles. I like that line of defence because it means that music is not functional, not instrumental for something else.

In the UK the concept of ‘impact’ has become a big issue in recent years in academia. What sort of ‘impact’ do you think musicology can or should have in the world? How can it achieve this?

That is another really hard question. It is good that you raise these questions because they are so important. What you see is the kind of things that make it into the public are not really reflective of what goes on in conferences, and I think to a certain extent that is inevitable because the idea of presenting new knowledge is always different from the goal of presenting knowledge that the general public will relate to. There may be some overlaps occasionally, but it is definitely the exception, not the norm. I think the role of the musicologist has changed quite a lot in the last few decades. It is not entirely clear how new models of what musicologists do, or what purpose they serve, should be with regard to the general public. The idea of social impact is much more explicit in UK funding than it is in the US. It is not a question that we have been confronted with all the time, although that does not mean to say it is not relevant. My impression of US academia is that so much of it is so far removed from everyday life that people just really do not care. That gives you a certain amount of freedom that I think is good and bad, whereas in the UK the public cares a lot more about these questions, and it does make the job harder for scholars in the UK.

How do you feel about the neoliberalisation of higher education?

Bad! It is terrible! I was the beneficiary of the old system where education anywhere in Europe was free for all European citizens, and that changed pretty quickly after I finished. It was a great system. The biggest problem with the neoliberalisation of the university is an obvious one: it turns students into clients and customers, the education becomes something that they pay for, and education is not that kind of a commodity. The goal of an education becomes to make as much money as possible. This is very explicit in the US, and it has a huge effect on the kinds of subjects that students choose: economics, maybe politics, nothing else. In the humanities, enrolment has plummeted even in English, which has always been the biggest. The neoliberalisation of the university system in America has always been there – what with all the private institutions – but I think it has reached a new degree. The idea of an education as a stage of personal growth, of learning things for the sake of learning things is something that is almost obsolete. That is the struggle: to remind people of what an education has been for, is for or should be for.

Having spent some time in both Cambridge, England, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, what would you say are the biggest differences between the academic environments in the UK and America, and specifically the differences in terms of teaching and research in the field of musicology in each country?

The biggest difference is the secondary school system, which is so focused in Britain. Your choice of academic subjects is predicated on the subjects you studied for your A-levels. That does not exist in America. American education is much more broad-based; there is no level of specialisation at the secondary level. When you start your bachelor’s degree, you are admitted just to study; you do not have to decide what your subject is going to be. You only declare your major at Harvard halfway through the second year – each university has a date when you have to declare. It is really much more fluid. It has some advantages and disadvantages. I think the main disadvantage from the teacher’s perspective is that you cannot expect any prior knowledge, so in principle you can be a music major without being able to read music before you go to university. It does not happen but it could happen and we have to make it possible to happen. If you value flexibility that is a great system and a lot of people go through university saying ‘I came in to be an astrophysics major and I came out a linguistics major’. You do not get that kind of trajectory in the UK, with very few exceptions. Ultimately, it is a different model of adolescence. In the UK you have to make up your mind, broadly, of what you are going to do by the time you are sixteen. Whereas in America you are twenty-one.

Do you think the American system is better than the UK’s?

They both have advantages. Speaking for myself, I was happy that I went through the UK system. I think that was right for me. It is very intensive. You just do one subject all the time, and you get a lot done in a very short amount of time. That is much more than you can achieve in America because there are so many other things that you have to do, but I can see how different kinds of personalities can thrive in the other system. I know I am dating myself but do you remember Laura Spence? She was the poster child of a massive governmental critique of the Oxford admissions system about ten years ago. She was a girl from a northern comprehensive who applied to read medicine at Oxford. She was rejected but she got into Harvard so everybody at the time said ‘See! She would have been good enough!’ But what people did not appreciate at the time was that they are very different systems. You cannot apply to study medicine because it is only a higher degree in America. That is how different the systems are.

How do you think musicology will change over the next twenty years?

I should preface what I want to say by going back to the previous question. The other thing that I found interesting about going to America, as compared with being in the UK, is that there are very different expectations of what kinds of contents matter – what your education should entail – and I think you are on much safer ground in Europe trying to make the case for the Western canon than in America. You can always argue this is part of our heritage, whatever the flaws of the argument are. But it is really very hard to make that case in America, where all the things that we teach under the Western canon up until the late nineteenth/early twentieth century is all European. The canon debate has even more urgency in America than it seems to have here. That is what I should add to the previous question that also leads to where I think musicology might be going. The question of the Western canon is going to continue. I do not know what the outcome will be but it is definitely not over. I think we will have a lot more work on music that is not concert music. I think we will probably engage more with the digital, whatever that may mean. And if recent trends are anything to go by, on the level of what do we mean by scholarship, I think there will be more of an engagement with creative forms of expression that are integrated into more traditional forms of scholarship. Those are my predictions for the future!


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