15 Minutes with … the Jerome Roche Prize Winner (Interview with Nanette Nielsen)

Following on from our interview with the 2014 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Alexander Rehding, we interviewed the 2014 Jerome Roche Prize Winner, Professor Nanette Nielsen, before her keynote at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at Bangor University. Nanette is Associate Professor at the Department of Musicology, University of Oslo. She works on music and philosophy, especially ethics and aesthetics in twentieth-century music, on film music, and on opera and music criticism in the Weimar republic. You can find out more about her work here.

Many thanks to Professor Nielsen for taking part!

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

I think my favourite aspects are the ‘a-ha’ moments, either my own or my students’. The eureka moments, where you have worked on something deeply for a long time, and where it suddenly occurs to you that this must be it! I love it when everything comes together in research… and I can sometimes see those moments in the eyes of my students as they learn, and learn to grapple with complicated stuff.

Speaking of these moments: the least favourite aspect of my job – which happens very rarely these days, I should hasten to add (but which requires monitoring!) – would be the points at which there are structures imposed (by society, or by institutions) that do not recognise just how creative and free academics need to be in order to be productive and successful as academics. It is, for example, crucial that academics are not time-bound or office bound, unlike the way many other professions need to be. I often get ‘a-ha’ moments when doing something completely different, like washing up, going for a walk, taking photographs, or cycling! It is a well known fact that creativity especially strikes when we do something entirely different, when the brain stops thinking in predictable structures, when you let go of the complexity for a moment. And that doesn’t necessarily happen between 9 am and 5 pm.

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

When I was a small child, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Quite how I changed my mind to musicology and academia is a longer story… The short version is that I always did well in music: I grew up in a very musical family, and I was lucky to meet all the right academically-minded people at the right time. And I was also lucky that my parents recognised early that I loved books (I could read fluently before I began school). But I’m the first in my family who went to University. If I were to do it all over today, I really don’t think I would have done anything differently: my job straddles so many wonderful aspects (writing, reading, teaching, communicating, meeting exciting people, making important decisions that have positive impact on others’ lives, travelling)… I think I’m living and working to the best of my capability, and that’s the main thing: to feel that one’s capacities are being put fully into use, that one can achieve maximally as a human being on a daily basis. Being a helicopter pilot might have been fun for a while, though

Can you talk a bit about your prize-winning article ‘Ernst Krenek’s “Problem of Freedom” in Jonny spielt auf’. What is your central argument in this article and why is it important reading for musicologists? 

In the article, I argue that Jonny spielt auf offers a musical manifestation of how the (during the Weimar Republic, perceived) threat to individual freedom can be considered a threat to creativity. I suggest that the arietta composed by the protagonist Max, ‘Als ich damals’, is also a symbol of his creativity: hence when the song (his creation) is no longer present in the musical fabric, Max loses not only his individuality but also his creativity. And here one of the perceptive opera producer and critic Paul Bekker’s main points about individual freedom and the human singing voice in the contemporary climate of Weimar Germany gains relevance and becomes foreboding for where the cultural climate was heading: art is possible only where the existence of man as such is possible (he says) – it is not the collective product of a group or community. Finally, it seems that it was not only Max who was muted: if the composer Ernst Krenek sought with the opera to make a statement about individual freedom, this message was not heard by the audience. He felt thoroughly misunderstood. So I focus on constructions of subjectivity in Jonny, and argue that, much as Krenek lamented the fact that the opera’s fundamental message had not been taken seriously enough in the work’s reception, he himself had presented this theme of individual freedom ambiguously in musical terms.

With ever more access to information, we’re all pressed to reading loads these days, so I couldn’t possibly say that colleagues and students absolutely should read this piece! But the Weimar Era is such a rich and stimulating period, and I think any scholar interested in powerful intersections between music and philosophy, and music and politics would have one or two insights to gain by reading because the topics covered resonate pretty loudly in many other politically-saturated periods, not least our own current context.

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

Oooo, plenty, but maybe a priority would be to ask Adorno if he has any more beach photos he could share…

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? And how can musicologists best engage with the public at large?

Goodness, it’s a huge question. A brief answer would be that the word ‘impact’ itself has from the outset been incredibly deceptive: it suggests a sudden effect of some kind; a suggestion that easily lends itself to short-term thinking. But in order to recognise the proper value – including the societal benefits – of the humanities, it is crucial to involve long-term thinking, looking at the distant past as well as the distant future, and understand developments accordingly. I’ve always taken Stefan Collini’s approach: he recognised early on what a devastating impact ‘impact’ could potentially have.

If one looks at impact less like some commercially-friendly, industry-oriented, or scientifically measurable ideal, and more along the lines of sharing research insights in the arena of ‘public engagement’ (as you suggest with the question), then musicologists are in a good position: there’s plenty of opportunity to share more widely. Having just moved to a smaller country, I’ve been positively surprised at the amount of invitations to public engagement I’ve already enjoyed, from being on national radio (NRK) talking about film music, through being interviewed by national newspapers, to debating film and opera at two key public institutions (the Norwegian Film Institute and the Norwegian National Opera).

What drew you specifically to the study of music and philosophy? Do you think undergraduate degree programmes should be more interdisciplinary than they are at present?

In some ways, I think I’ve always done both musicking and philosophising… so continuing in an academic way with both subjects at University was almost an inevitable step. And I was definitely also simply very lucky to meet and be inspired by the right people at the right time.

The general move towards interdisciplinarity in undergraduate degree programmes is a welcome one, and although it adds more complexity, it also adds more opportunity for understanding the world in new ways. Individual subject areas and focused expertise can also bring a lot to the discussion, of course, so interdisciplinarity without losing the many strengths of core subject identity seems to be the ideal to strive towards.

Should scholars be directly appointed to academic positions? Yes/no and why/why not?

I believe in honest, fair competition: the best scholar should get the job. It might be a sign of the times that Departments are beginning to hire ‘directly’, i.e. without honest competition, and this might increasingly mirror what is perhaps happening more regularly in the private sector. But if that is the development, then there should be openness about it, rather than creating fake advertisements and getting (especially) young academics’ hopes up for positions that have in fact already been filled.

In terms of musicological research, teaching, and the wider academic environment, how does the Norwegian system compare to the UK’s? Do you prefer one or the other? 

Goodness, where to start. The first would be to make a point about the commodification of Higher Education that the UK has been experiencing over the last few years. In Norway, education is a human right. So it is hard to imagine that it is a system that would ever require that individuals would need to pay for it. I have seen the UK environment change rapidly over the past decade, since I took up my first permanent post as a lecturer in 2005, and that has been pretty scary. I for example remember when ‘the student experience’ was called ‘the student learning experience’, i.e. not about selling a product as if it were some kind of holiday, but rather inviting students to engage in the process of learning. To the extent that education is not a commodity in Norway, I would have to concede that I definitely prefer Norway over and above the UK. There is more autonomy, social security, and – very importantly – social equality in Norway, and a better understanding that education is a necessary good for all. So I don’t think it will develop in the same direction as the UK, ever. And if I have to, I’ll do my best to make sure that it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved working in the UK, I loved my colleagues and my students. I was very lucky to be at two wonderful research-intensive institutions over the past ten years, and especially Nottingham was a brilliant place with scope for individual achievement (I won a couple of teaching awards as well as the Vice Chancellor’s Achievement Award for a community-outreach project I instigated). But I left for a reason: it was not the immediate surroundings, it was the short-term, neoliberal product-thinking imposed by the UK Government. What is draining and creativity killing is what you cannot control, the kind of problems that your brain cannot solve, or life-situations that you have no power to change. And I felt that there were no mechanisms left for academics to have a voice here anymore. No real resistance. As has been mentioned at the conference more than once, the task for young academics in the UK is to do two things: adapt and fight. One thing would be to resist particular rhetoric, such as a grand idea about ‘excellence’ (in research and teaching) being about improving ‘productivity’, but without a thorough foundation of creativity underpinning the ambition. There need to be new, clever strategies for survival. At the end of my talk, I’ll refer to the idea of ‘freedom as self determination’ as I cover it in my Jonny article.

The point about freedom as self determination can be made once we link self determination to creativity. The perceived lack of individual freedom in the Weimar Republic was in part a function of an increasingly unstable and impoverished society, one in which it would have been difficult for many individuals to achieve a sense of free self-determination. And it is easy to link self-determination to creativity in this context: for some, the threat to individual freedom becomes a threat to creativity. The point here is that if individual creativity is subject to social pressures and thereby becomes ideological (as it did for many artists in Weimar Germany, and indeed now for academics in the UK), the question is raised of whether the power of the individual imagination can still be maintained and protected. Put philosophically, the Hegelian view of freedom as self-determination via socially agreed norms becomes implausible in a society where social norms are questionable.

The moral of the story is that now is the time to keep doing good work (this has been probably the best piece of advice I was ever given as a graduate student)! So in my talk, I’ll be encouraging young academics to keep doing good work, keep determining themselves, their creativity, and their academic freedom.

How does your award-winning teaching inform your research and vice versa? What are your thoughts about the UK’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework? 

I am lucky always to have been working at research-intensive institutions, so my teaching has always been research-led, research-based (and as I call it), ‘research-received’ – i.e. students have recognised that there is a close link between research and teaching in my courses.

The first thing to say about how teaching and research might best inform each other would be: always, ALWAYS have fun. That is what my teaching is about, and my research follows the same idea(!). And as my students keep teaching me, it is through playing and exploring that they learn the most. But there is a very serious point in having fun: the idea of fun is important because approaching things with a child-like attitude enables proper curiosity and openness, and this is key for thinking more broadly, with a sense of wonder, exploring things in new ways. That we have to be very disciplined about the fun, and eventually put it all into a stricter conceptual box in order to meet deadlines and offer proper information and dialogue and so on is the second step…

Like the REF, an imposed framework like TEF runs the risk of presenting things the wrong way around, neglecting the process of engagement in order to foreground an idea of a product, an end result. This is the kind of thing that can kill the fun and creativity, and undermine what high-level education should be all about. For both the REF and the TEF, scholars and students alike need to remember more stubbornly than ever why we’re in this game in the first place, and keep reiterating those values that are much more important than what can be reduced to quantifiable measuring systems. The basic value for education is surely humanity, and just like, for example, love, it is very hard to measure in figures. As Einstein so perceptively said (if that quote is indeed correctly attributed to him!): ‘not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’.

In what directions do you hope to take your future research?

I’m continuing to explore my favourite music-philosophy intersection between ethics and aesthetics. The beauty of this is that it leaves me with an incredibly broad playground for research: I, for example, have a book on the German opera producer and critic Paul Bekker coming out (‘Paul Bekker’s Musical Ethics’, with Ashgate), I write on film music, and am getting increasingly into drawing on approaches from phenomenology and pragmatism to try and ask and answer big questions about what makes engagement with music so meaningful.

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

With all the young, exciting, bright academics around, it will just keep getting better.


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